Cooling Towers Free From Morgue File There are some who claim that nuclear technology is a necessary wedge of the clean energy pie. I’m not so sure. Nuclear power is really expensive to get online. It’s hard to say whether the risks of nuclear energy are worth the benefits of reduced carbon emissions. Energy efficiency makes a lot more sense—affordable efficiencies are all around us.

Setting that debate aside, consider the latest American marketing campaign by Areva—a gigantic French nuclear energy company—as a case study in how big money  can sell just about any product to the public. Areva is tapping into the public’s enthusiasm for clean energy with a clever media campaign. You may have seen their ad on the New York Times web page. Whatever you think of nuclear power, it’s worth taking a look at their campaign for lessons about how we might pitch much simpler ways to change our energy future like energy upgrades for schools.

I actually like Areva’s campaigns because they’re pretty successful at making a risky and expensive energy venture into a seeming no—brainer, wearing down skeptics and educating a not-very-interested public. How could we make putting in insulation and a new boiler as cool as Areva makes nuclear reactors?

  • I see at least three things that Areva’s marketing of nuclear energy do that start to wear down  skeptics or those who haven’t thought about the issue very much. First, Areva’s campaigns make nuclear power seem like a natural progression. It goes like this: First there was water power, then coal, then oil, and now the next stage in the evolution is nuclear. Ta-da! Areva expertly casts nuclear power seem like just another renewable. Taken together with wind, solar, biomass, and other technologies the story is that nuclear power can be part of a carbon neutral solution to the world’s energy problems.

    Here is one good example: Areva’s latest animated video for their campaign called “Energy: One Powerful Story” set to a beautifully orchestrated version of the dance hit “Funkytown.” (True confession “Funkytown” was the first record (a 45″) I ever bought! Give me a break, I was 10 years old).

    The video does a brilliant job of casting nuclear powered cities—supplemented by solar and wind—as a common, every day fact of life. Somehow when we push the idea of energy efficiency upgrades for schools or borrowing money affordably to build district energy, the concept seems kind of old fashioned. We could do a better job of making efficiency seem inevitable—as natural and commonsense as Areva’s shiny, happy nuclear cities.

    The second lesson from Areva’s campaign is their friendly representation of an otherwise unknown—or even scary—technology. Areva uses animation to make the complex processes involved with nuclear power seem benign—as well as obvious, simple, and safe. Here’s their 45 second video (based on this Royksopp video) that does a good job making nuclear power look like something as friendly as a Rube Goldberg Comic.

    This video is pure genius because it leans into one of the biggest weaknesses of the nuclear power option: the complicated, confusing, and scary technology. Areva doesn’t obscure the process of pulling uranium out of the ground and turning it into fuel, they make a cartoon out of it. It’s a way of facing head-on people’s fear or ambivalence while dissolving it in comforting cartoon images.

    I’m not saying energy efficiencies need a cartoon mascot, but it might help. The Referendum 52 campaign—an effort to invest in energy upgrades in Washington state school buildings—focused its message on better learning environments for children and safer, more efficient schools but maybe it would have been more successful by simply illustrating—friendly cartoon-style—how straightforward energy upgrades would work. When talking about energy we often think its better to avoid talking shop—blower door tests, insulation, energy scores—in favor of talking about the outcomes of energy efficiencies. But the talking about the technical stuff, even if it’s still a bit opaque can help demystify it and make it more accessible.

    Third lesson: Areva puts a big focus on people. Faces, real families, real communities. Here’s a part of their marketing effort that is all about the honest, hard-working Americans who are employed in one of their American plants.

    Some of the dialogue in the video is really wonky: one of the workers says “Charleroi is the global competency center for the dead tank breakers…this facility also houses the treading activity which focuses on transformers as well as disconnect switches.” Say what? Who cares! All we need to know is that a real person, maybe just like us—or our neighbor or cousin or friend—is getting a decent paycheck to build these things. On a gut level we relate. We also get the message that if workers need help the company helps them, if they need a break the company sponsors off-site activities. And if they need training and education the company is there to help. It’s a good job. The company cares. In dire economic times, this feels like a real, honest solution.

    This last point is one that the green jobs effort has really not been able to pull off: making it clear that renewable energy and energy efficiency will put real people in real jobs. The Areva marketing does this by simply showing the workers doing stuff in a plant. Voila! Real jobs. I don’t know what they’re doing. But it doesn’t matter. They’re working!

    The lesson we can learn from Areva, I think, is that to make something seem extraordinary we need to make it somewhat banal. Rather than marketing energy efficiency or even renewable energy as “the next big thing,” we might do well to market them as simply the most logical next step in the evolution of energy. And getting technical might not be a bad idea after all if it’s an ordinary worker wearing a hard hat and explaining smart grid technology or how to do a blower door test to assess home efficiency. Doing that might be enough to take green jobs from abstract concept to reality in people’s minds.

    Whatever you think of nuclear as an option in the energy mix of the next decades, paying attention to what Areva is up to is a good education. Even if efficiency advocates don’t have multi-million dollar campaign budgets we can still 1) show that efficiency is a natural progression, a no-brainer; 2) illustrate in the simplest terms (if not cartoons) just how the technologies and financing work; and 3) put a face on green jobs—showing the real people who do the work.

    Photo credit: danielito from morguefile.com