Tuesday Throwback: GE’s Misguided “Sixteen Tons” Coal Commercial

This General Electric ad is from 2005, and it’s a mess. First, let’s ignore the political implications and the fact that “clean coal” is a very controversial topic. We’re just focusing on the commercial. It features sweaty, muscular, attractive young men and women shoveling coal while scantily clad. That’s one problem…while very nice to look at, it’s not quite representative of a real coal mine. And then there’s the music used. The song is “Sixteen Tons”, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic miner’s lament (originally written and recorded by Merle Travis). The lyrics refer to the truck system, where coal miners were not paid in cash, but in scrip that was only accepted for goods at a “company store.”  Coal mine companies also typically owned the town’s houses in which miners lived. As a consequence, workers couldn’t save cash, and so it was nearly impossible to leave the towns. Thus, “I owe my soul to the company store.” Which makes this a very dubious musical pick for GE. It seems like whoever made the commercial scoured for minutes to come up with a mining song and picked “Sixteen Tons.” Of course, a song about being too indebted to make it to heaven doesn’t seem like a savvy choice (as Cracked notes). This spot was widely panned and for good reason. 19 likes vs. 96 dislikes on YouTube? Ouch.

GE

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