Barbara Lippert’s Critique: When Nature Calls

Is it just my ecomagination, or does this latest GE commercial feature half-naked supermodels working as coal miners? I always knew that digging and drilling was dirty, underground work, but never imagined it to be this kind of dirty—or underground. This is more like Debbie (and Dougie) do anthracite.

And the sexed-up tone of this message for cleaner coal seems mind-defyingly inconsistent with “Singin’ in the Rain,” the earlier release from this new “ecomagination” TV campaign. That spot shows a jolly digitized elephant dancing in the rain in a Technicolor forest full of critters. It’s pure, unalloyed Disney, and a fable for the Teletubby generation. Toddlers everywhere will love it.

What would seem to unite the X-rated pulchritude and G-rated pachyderm—two very visually disparate messages—is a clear desire to prove that this is not your father’s GE (or Jack Welch’s, for that matter). Indeed, in a reversal of Neutron Jack’s reputation not only as a firer of employees but as a despoiler of the land, GE last week announced a huge new human and environment-friendly initiative.

“Ecomagination is GE’s commitment to address challenges such as the need for cleaner, more efficient sources of energy, reduced emissions and abundant sources of clean water,” GE chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt told an audience in Washington, D.C. “And we plan to make money doing it. Increasingly for business, ‘green’ is green.”

So now GE is saying what’s good for the environment is also good for business. That’s pretty revolutionary stuff for a company that just a few years ago had a reputation as one of the country’s worst polluters. It’s a big (and encouraging) story, for which BBDO has created a wide-ranging campaign, including a beautiful 10-page b-to-b insert that ran in newspapers last week and consumer-magazine ads that are clever take-offs on Audubon drawings.

The TV is directed at a more general audience. (Before 2003, GE advertised primarily on the Sunday morning political shows. Then, when the redoubtable “We bring good things to life” was replaced by “Imagination at work,” the spots also started running on cable and in prime time.) Certainly, I enjoyed the charming and beautifully produced spectacle of “Singin’ in the Rain” (and who doesn’t love that music?). The action is magical, the colors hypnotic; it’s big-time entertainment, featuring the Fred Astaire of the elephant world. Kids will want to see it again and again.

But I’m a bit mystified by the Disneyfication—the level of simplicity and artifice. I understand that good advertising simplifies, and tells a story that resonates on an individual and universal level—like a fable. But people who love wild animals don’t want to watch them tap dance. My favorite parts are the reaction shots of real animals—the chimp’s headshake, the colorful toucan standing at attention. I realize that the digitized trick at the center of the spot represents the imagination part, but if GE is genuinely embracing the earth, why show a plasticized version? It’s almost like saying we can’t handle the truth.

If “Singin'” is Disney, “Model Miners” is Calvin Klein meets Abercrombie (and it would also be a genius spot for Levi’s!). It’s got a Flashdance meets Robert Palmer’s robotic models vibe. Again, the film could not be better directed and is gorgeous, and the “Sixteen Tons” music is intriguing and cleverly matched to the visuals. Obviously, making cleaner coal is not exactly a sexy subject, so this not only stops us in our tracks, but it forces us to reassess our assumptions about the now cleaner, greener company.

The shock is not in the bodies. It’s more artfully done than any fitness ad, and we’ve seen beautiful bodies before. Obviously, great care was taken in being an equal opportunity objectifier—both the men and women are prime specimens. (Some of the shots mimic the look of Richard Avedon’s fine-art portfolio of miners; Sebastião Salgado also took pictures of Brazilian blue-collar workers and miners that were similar studies of light and form.) But as much as I like watching the spot, the slickness has a trivializing effect that could actually make light of environmental issues. Isn’t it kind of shallow to think that the only metaphor for natural beauty is a supermodel—either male or female?

The third spot, “Rails,” has the most natural link to the GE heritage and brand as we know it. In that way, it’s probably the least imaginative and surprising—but it has that recognizable, intelligent GE voice and tone, and I guess I find that comforting. It opens on footage re-creating the act of laying the final railroad tracks to span the country in the late 1800s. The voiceover is clipped and earnest and elegiac—Hal Riney meets Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. But just as we’re ready to get all choked up, the film gets funny. We realize that all the bearded, suited men are covered with soot—one has it streaming out of his hat—and we hear about their wish for a “cleaner locomotive.” (GE has developed a hybrid, the Prius of choo-choos, which is then shown in color.)

I really like the little visual tags at the end of each spot—sped-up graphic symbols representing each of GE’s industries.

We do get the feeling that we’re not in regular old appliance-ville anymore. But if this is what the agency does for coal, imagine how they could bring greenhouse gases to life.



General Electric

Agency

BBDO New York

Chief creative officer

David Lubars

Executive creative director

Don Schneider

“Singin’ in the Rain,” “Rail”

Sr. creative director, art director

Tom Shaine

Sr. creative director, copywriter

Tom Darbyshire



Executive producer

Regina Ebel

Director

Joe Pytka, Pytka

“Model Miners”

Creative director, copywriter

David Johnson

Creative director,

art director

John Leu

Senior producer

Maria Amato

Director

Samuel Bayer, RSA/USA