Oil and Coal companies have been desperately fighting the environmental battle for years now. With supporters of global warming growing exponentially each year, advertisers of these companies have been forced to grow absurdly creative. Jeff Goodell satirically criticizes these advertisements in his blog article, “How Big Coal Keeps America Stupid.” He has a simple way of writing that is conversational and accessible. He writes to those who already believe in global warming, finding no need to define the consequences of these advertisements, only the need to exploit them. His writing is successful in this activity system through his accessible language, use of metaphor, and satirical tone.
Goodell practices a very down to earth, plain style of writing. He writes as though he is talking to the reader:
“The New York Times has a good piece today about the $153 million ad blitz the fossil fuel industry is running to oust President Obama.”
It is as if Goodell is saying to a good friend, “Hey buddy, did you read that piece in the New York Times this morning?” Goodell is clearly interested in what he is writing about and consequently sparks our interest as readers. He uses simple vocabulary like, “ad blitz” and, “oust.” More complicated terminology could have easily been implemented here. Eradicate instead of oust, recent augment in advertisement instead of ad blitz. Goodell chooses not to use these jargonistic terms. Instead he opts to use everyday, easily understood language. We readers can relate to him; we can see that a real live human being wrote this. We are engaged, ready to read more.
To make this piece even more accessible, Goodell uses analogies. Analogies provide an easily understandable way of furthering a point by using comparison instead of daunting explanation. These analogies also bring in a bit of satirical comedy, making the piece more charming and engaging:
“But Big Oil and Big Coal have always been as skilled at propaganda as they are at mining and drilling.”
Goodell compares the oil company’s propaganda to the intense, intricate task of drilling and mining-the very profession that these companies were made for. Huge intimidating machinery, hard work, sweat- all of these images flash through our minds. Their propaganda comes to seem like a task involving hundreds of employees hard at work. This shows us the immense amount of energy these companies invest in propaganda without simply stating it. Using an analogy presents this fact in an interesting, creative way. It hits the reader more emotionally and gives us a clear mental image to relate to.
Goodell also compares the oil companies to tobacco companies:
“Like the tobacco industry before them, their success depends on keeping Americans stupid.”
Goodell plays with many aspects of our brains here. He compares these companies to the dreaded and evil tobacco companies. The tobacco industry is infamous for blatantly lying to the American public. Cigarettes kill roughly half a million Americans each year and they continue to advertise them like candy. We hold tobacco companies in our hearts as wicked and manipulative. Branching these industries together makes us see the villainy behind the oil companies and the manipulation in their advertising. He also says that their advertising depends on keeping Americans stupid. This appeals to our ethos as people. We absolutely do not want to be considered stupid Americans. The reader feels taken advantage of, lied to, belittled. This one single sentence carries so much weight behind it; it is a very affective analogy.
Goodell establishes credibility in many ways. One way is through his elaborate knowledge on the advertisements he discusses. He mentions specific dates of the advertisements, where the ads were run, and even provides the name of the company that produced them:
“My favorite is from 1976. American Electric Power, one of the biggest coal-burning utilities in the country, ran an ad in the New York Times to hype the idea that America has more coal than it knows what to do with. In the ad, there's a big picture of a little boy's face, and he's in tears. Below is the headline: "By the time he's out of 8th grade, America will be out of oil and gas." The ad claims that America has only 12 years of oil and gas left -- but, lucky for us, we have 500 years worth of coal.”
This is a very well written paragraph. Goodell describes the advertisement in great detail with a touch of sarcasm at the end in his statement, “lucky for us.” He establishes his credibility and furthers his critique with a sense of sarcasm all in one sentence. He clearly holds great knowledge on the ads he is critiquing. This shows us that he knows what he is talking about. He even provides us with a link to the ad he is discussing. He makes claims and grounds them with hard evidence. We readers see his knowledge and give more credit to his ideas and critiques because we begin to trust him more.
Goodell establishes credibility through the vocabulary he uses as well:
“Over the years, they have become masters at distorting science, dodging innovation, and predicting economic mayhem if anyone or anything gets in the way of their divine right to mine, burn, and profit off America's natural resources.”
He uses words such as “distorting”, “innovation”, and “mayhem”. Although these words are easily understood, they are not simplistic. They reflect an advanced vocabulary. He also creates an allusion to the idea of “divine right.” This is the medieval idea that kings received their right to rule directly from God and therefore were not subject to the will of the people. This connection makes the oil companies seem like huge, overbearing forces in our society. They consider themselves to have a divine right in our society, they feel like they can do whatever they want. This connection both furthers his points and establishes his deep general knowledge, increasing his credibility on another level.
Goodell blogs for Rolling Stone. Therefore he writes to an audience that is mostly young and liberal. About seventy three percent of their readers are below the age of forty-five. His satirical way of writing and assumption of knowledge on global warming would therefore be successful in this activity system. However, there are those who are conservative amongst his audience. These people would not be automatic supporters of the environment and may even be on big coal’s side. The satirical tone would turn them off immediately and they would not give his critiques a fair chance. He does not stress the impacts these companies have on the environment and therefore does not show the villainy in them. Those who are not aware of the negative impacts of these companies would not fully grasp the sarcasm and would not fully understand his message. Consequently, his way of writing would not be successful in these activity systems. He is not reaching one hundred percent of his audience. However, I do not believe Goodell set out to reach everyone in his audience. Most of the meaning in this piece is derived from sarcastic commentary. He sets out to exploit the absurdity of these companies through satire. Therefore, he would be writing to those who already agree with his stance on global warming. Overall, I think that Goodell writes a successful piece to the activity system he intended to reach.
There is a very narrow line that writers must walk between the plain and official styles. There is a time and a place for complicated language, like in the scientific community where much of the vocabulary and concepts are above our heads. However, most pieces, such as news and didactic pieces, should be written in the plain style, as Goodell’s piece, because they are trying to reach a broader audience. Their concepts are important for many to understand. However, they should not be so plain that they come off as dry and blunt. A nice balance between the official style and plain Jane style should be strived for: enough educated language to give credibility, but enough plain language to be clear and accessible. Goodell writes at a grade level of 11.4 with a reading ease score of 54.6. He balances an educated vocabulary with a conversational, simplistic way of writing. This is a very good example of balancing the official style with plain style.
By: Erin O'Connor
By: Erin O'Connor