On ABC TV’s The Gruen Transfer, one of the most popular segments is ‘‘The Pitch’’, where rival ad agencies go head to head on a controversial subject. Although it’s a joke, the campaigns often manage to strike at the heart of the issues.
This week, two very different outfits decided to give it a go for real, tackling the vexed topic of coal seam gas (CSG) mining.
First the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) launched a TV blitz to sell us the positives of CSG mining. With a juicy budget funded by numerous energy companies, their ads are now airing nationally.
In the opposite corner, online lobby group GetUp! have made a commercial highlighting the negatives, and are pleading for donations to put it to air.
Both campaigns have a very simple goal. To force us to make up our minds about fracking; the process whereby natural gas (a greenhouse-friendly source of energy) is extracted from rock formations by injecting fluids and chemicals into fractures and splitting them open. Those fluids potentially find their way into the water table and our drinking water, and therein lie major public health and environmental concerns, as illustrated so graphically in the US documentary Gaslands.
Australian opponents claim not enough research has been done on the threat to aquifers. A recent poll suggested two-thirds of us would support a moratorium until more is known about the environmental impacts. In France, they’ve already banned fracking. In South Africa, Shell had to withdraw their ‘‘misleading’’ fracking ads.
APPEA’s Rick Wilkinson wants his ads to ‘‘restore the balance’’ in the debate, which has so far seen – on the ‘‘unbalanced’’ side – a 60,000-strong GetUp! petition, moves by Tony Windsor and the Greens to slow down the industry, a rural movement called ‘‘Lock The Gate Alliance’’ whose aim is pretty clear, a disturbing 60 Minutes feature, a Sydney Residents Against Coal Seam Gas lobby group agitating against mining in the metropolitan area, and Bob Katter’s Australia Party proposing a one-year ban.
“So…” as Wil Anderson says to his Gruen combatants, “let’s take a look at the ads.”
Wilkinson and co decided to feature ‘‘real people who are impacted by CSG and want to tell their own stories.’’ Built around the slogan of ‘‘We Want CSG’’ (I wonder how long it took the copywriter to come up with that one?) the lack of production values in the ads is only matched by the lack of hard information. Unnamed “real people” stare woodenly at the camera and mutter such inanities as “we need CSG” and “bring it on.” Self-interest and evasiveness appear to be the order of the day.
We learn that CSG is “breathing new life into country towns” and that it “means that our young people don’t have to leave town for work.” But the same, arguably, could have been said about asbestos mining. The so-called “facts” are merely descriptions of how much money the industry is spending, rather than a serious attempt to address the environmental, health and property rights issues troubling the community. From a strategy point of view, disappointing.
Still smarting, possibly, from the error of their Cate Blanchett carbon tax ad, GetUp! have also decided to feature “real people”. But unlike APPEA’s real people, these ones are happy to give us their names as they tell their somewhat alarming stories. The ad successfully taps a rich seam of compelling issues: “if they contaminate our water and land, where have we got to go?”; “(gas companies) can walk right over the top of me” and “the whole industry should be stopped until the science is known.”
One thing guaranteed to stir ‘‘Not In My Back Yard’’ opposition, it appears, is when you propose to start drilling against people’s will in their own back yards.
If the coal seam gas lobby is to have any luck reversing this growing community antagonism, their ads are going to have to be more than slogans and obfuscation. They need to be able to communicate that they understand the community’s concerns and are dealing honestly with them, and then articulate a clear strategic message that sells the benefits of CSG – including those that go beyond self-interest.
In the meantime, the GetUp! campaign, with its persuasive message and simple execution, is winning this pitch.