Few industries have bigger branding issues than the oil industry with fracking.
Not least of those issues: The word itself, which is short for hydraulic fracturing and near in sound to a four-letter word that's taboo on the radio. Activists have long exploited that connection — the Natural Resources Defense Council’s page on drilling is headlined "Don’t get fracked!" — and industry PR types have advised against using the term at all.
Pennsylvania has been a particularly hot battleground. Drilling has exploded, and so has opposition to the oil and gas wells popping up all over the state — and the pollution and truck traffic they create.
In the heat of election season, an industry group there has introduced an ad that touts fracking’s contribution to jobs and lower energy costs — and which, in its punch-line, makes an effort to reclaim the word.
"Fracking’s a good word," says a middle-aged man collecting his mail. "Fracking’s a good word," says a woman on her front porch. "Fracking rocks," says a teenage girl on an elliptical machine.
The ad started running in late September, commissioned by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the beginning of a larger campaign called “Rock solid for PA."
"Some people will try to use that word in a negative connotation," says the group's president, David Spigelmyer. "All we’re trying to do is shine a light on the fact that there’s a lot of good that comes out of that technology. That’s all."
David Masur has noticed the ads. He's director of PennEnvironment, a non-profit that opposes fracking. "It’s been highly entertaining," he says.
He thinks it means he and his allies are winning in the court of public opinion. "There’s something funny," he says, "when companies like Exxon Mobil and Shell and Halliburton and BP are saying, ‘Man, we’re just getting creamed by the local non-profit group.’"
But maybe it could work? It did for Obamacare.
"Obamacare is very interesting," says Tim Calkins, author of “Defending Your Brand” and a marketing professor at Northwestern University. "It did start out as an attack on the program, and now supporters use it just the same as everybody else. In a way, it’s actually very smart."
However, Obamacare had a charismatic, witty spokesman who could get on TV, for free, whenever he wanted.
Without that, says Calkins, "it's going to take a lot of money, if you're going to get in front of people and get them to re-think a word," he says. "Especially when you've got a word that has such deep-set associations around it."
He gives the industry credit for trying. "I don't know if this initiative is going to work," he says, "but at least they're looking at it, and taking action, and they've certainly got to do that."