One of GE’s ‘model miners’ featured in its 2005 TV ad touting the company’s ‘clean coal’ technology.
In 2005, General Electric, the giant American conglomerate began an advertising campaign to tout its new-found concern for the environment and global warming. The advertising series, and its affiliated campaign, were part of a company-wide, GE initiative then titled “Ecomagination” — GE’s word for environmental innovation. The company had allocated some $90 million to launch the campaign, of which the TV ads were part.
One of the first ads to be featured used a coal mining theme and was titled “Model Miners.” The music backing the ad was from the 1950s hit song “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. GE used the spot to push “clean coal,” a phrase which given coal’s carbon content, is regarded as something of an oxymoron by those concerned with global warming. Still, GE’s “Model Miners” TV ad was part of the company’s message that the nation could use its coal reserves in an environmentally friendly way to help solve its energy problem.
Scene from GE's coal mining ad.
Cue ‘Model Miners’
The ad opens at a coal mining site, with processing buildings in the background, as a group of male and female “model miners” descend a slight grade on their way into a coal mine. The camera then pans to various work scenes in the mine — the gals clad in tank tops and a few of the guys shirtless. All of the “model miners,” of course, have very good looking bodies and are sweating appropriately, yet not too much. At the ad’s opening and throughout its first scenes, Tennessee Ernie Ford sings his legendary “Sixteen Tons” tune in the background:
Well, I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine.
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mines.
I loaded sixteen tons of Number Nine coal,
And the straw-boss said, “Well, bless my soul.”
Scene from GE's coal mine ad.
You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.
As the song fades off lightly into the background, the narrator delivers GE’s intended message:
“Imagine if a 250-year supply of energy were right here at home… Now, thanks to emissions-reducing technology from GE Energy, harnessing the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day…..Another product of pure Eco-imagination. GE, imagination at work.”
As the narrator is making the pitch, the scene cuts to frame after frame of attractive workers flashing their muscles, the ladies in particular, wielding shovels and at least one with a jackhammer, most smiling and a few in near-flirting poses. The final screen shot, as the announcer finishes, shows the GE logo with “GE Imagination” printed below it, remaining on screen until close.
“The commercial we see,” offered Josh Ozersky in a July 2005 review of the ad in The New York Times, is visually indistinguishable from a Victoria’s Secret ad, right down to the blue filters and hubba-hubba slow motion.” Others thought the ad resembled a Madonna MTV video. In fact, at the unveiling of the “ecomagination” campaign in Washington D.C. where the TV ads were played and introduced at a VIP reception, CEO Jeffrey Immelt described the “Model Miners” ad as “a play on how to make coal sexy again.” Applauding heartily for the ad when it was played, according to one attendee, was James Connaughton, President Bush’s senior environmental advisor.
Scene from GE's coal mine ad.
No OSHA Regs
GE’s coal mine, of course, is a highly stylized, Hollywood coal mine. There are no OSHA regs here; no breathing masks required. And there’s plenty of room to stand up and strut one’s stuff. No low ceilings or cramped quarters. In fact, GE’s ad agency, BBDO, did not actually use a real coal mine to make the ad. Rather, they built a replica of the coal mining scenes on a soundstage to make the ad — at no small cost, to be sure. BBDO and GE would later win praise for their efforts. Some of the avant garde on Madison Avenue gave the piece high marks for its artistry, and BBDO won an award or two for the production. Yet others saw the piece as all wrong. “It strikes me as disingenuous to call for a massive resurgence in coal mining and then portray the job as a stylish sex party,” wrote Seth Stevenson of Slate magazine. Real miners, he said, still get black lung and still die in cave-ins.
'Model miners' at work in GE ad.
GE’s use of the song “Sixteen Tons” also brought objection, especially among those who cited the heritage of the song and what it was really saying about the brutish world of coal mining and company-ruled mining towns. True, the song was written about the struggles in the 1930s and 1940s, and things have improved since then. Still, as many who work in the mines today will point out, things are still far from peachy-keen in the coalfields.
BBDO’s Executive Creative Director Don Schneider told Slate’s Seth Stevenson that “Sixteen Tons” was used in the ad because it “instantly feels like a coal-mining song.” He also told Stevenson, “you can picture coal miners singing it without any negative feelings.” Really? Coal miners happily singing “another day older and deeper in debt”? Perhaps Mr. Schneider might have looked a bit deeper into the song’s history before he made that assertion. “Sixteen Tons” is certainly not “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off To Work We Go.” Merle Travis, the song’s author, had another world in mind when he penned the tune in the 1940s. (See “Sixteen Tons” for that background). “No one expects G.E. to preach a Marxist sermon,” wrote Josh Ozersky the New York Times, referring the deeper message in the song, “but the use of “Sixteen Tons” as a jokey soundtrack is an odd public relations move.”
More GE 'model miners'.
Jonathan Klein, a GE spokesman had explained the ad’s purpose to the New York Times. “In ‘Model Miners,'” he said, “the goal is to communicate that G.E.’s emission-reducing technology can make coal a more appealing energy source.” More appealing, that is, to GE’s coal and electric utility clients, perhaps. Building coal gasification facilities, coal-fired power plants, and sequestering carbon are all potentially huge capital goods businesses for GE. That may account for the company’s keen interest in projecting coal as a clean and happy “MTV generation” enterprise. BBDO and GE are not pitching coal miners or coal communities here, or even the general public necessarily. They’re message is really aimed at bigger corporate and government clients, saying in effect, “we can reduce your costs and increase your profits by reducing your future environmental liabilities, your pollution.” That’s not a bad thing, certainly, but running roughshod over coal mining’s labor heritage and short changing its dangers with misplaced imagery is.
Another GE 'model miner' from its TV ad.
It appears, however, that GE did get the message that its “Model Miners” ad was not striking the right chord with many of its viewers. TreeHugger.com, a Discovery Company website, reported that “GE was eventually pressured into dropping the ad campaign after it received numerous complaints from coal mining families.” Also, on January 2, 2006, the dangers of coal mining in the U.S. had become quite apparent once again, as the Sago Mine explosion in Sago, West Virginia became the dominant national news story, with days of continuous CNN and other coverage. Twelve miners died in the Sago mine tragedy. Not a good time, in any case, for “Model Miners” type advertising.
Group shot, 'model miners'.
Today, GE continues its Ecomagination campaign in various forms and venues, using television and print advertising, among other outlets. A sampling of some of these ads and other GE information on the project can be found at YouTube.com and the company’s website.
Additional stories at this website on coal-related topics include, for example, “Sixteen Tons, 1950s,” which explores the song history for the music used in the G.E. ad and some coal-related history, and also, “Paradise,” a story that uses a John Prine tune from 1971 as an introduction to explore coal strip mining history and a TVA coal-fired power plant in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky and the demise of the small town there named Paradise. See also at this website, the “Business & Society” page for more story choices in that category. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please consider making a supporting donation. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Pop culture and the history & businesses of pop culture, with emphasis on media & entertainment, including sports, politics, advertising & marketing as these relate to media, entertainment & popular culture.