The New Face of Ethanol

2010 has seen several ethanol-infused television commercials and an unprecedented U.S. oil spill, all of which are shaping the perception of the industry.
By Luke Geiver | July 15, 2010
A month before the gushing cloud of dark brown oil burst out of a broken pipe and the Deepwater Horizon tragedy spilled onto our shores and our television screens, a Consumer Federation of America survey revealed what many Americans are thinking about energy. The survey, conducted by Opinion Research Corp., showed that of the 1,010 adults surveyed, 87 percent believe that it's "important" the U.S. reduce oil consumption. "Our survey data strongly suggests that the American public is getting very close to the point, if they're not already there, where they are prepared to support radical measures to break our nation's dependence on oil and oil imports," said Jack Gillis, CFA director of public affairs, in announcing the survey results.

The endless images associated with the greatest U.S. environmental disaster of all timea fishing boat dragging an orange boom to corral a slick of oil or a stained pelican drenched in a chocolate-colored residue from wing to wingcertainly will influence public perception. Ethanol supporters hope those images will cast the debates surrounding biofuels in a new light. Luckily, several advertising campaigns were in the works before the oil spill. Visually and verbally, the campaigns are aimed at changing the American public's perception of ethanol.

The Visual
Even with a strong national presence at the pump, the general appearance and perception of ethanol in the mainstream has mainly been provided by billboards, print advertisements and websites. Since April, however, television commercials created by prominent ethanol promoters have been airing on CNN, MSNBC, Fox and HLN networks. Supported by Poet LLC, Growth Energy, UNICA and the National Corn Growers Association , the ads are giving a new face to ethanol reminiscent of the "Got Milk" presence.

The newest of these, from the NCGA, began airing June 28. Speaking over a series of images that starts with a flaming oil rig in the middle of an ocean, a voice declares, "It's clear that events here at home and abroad demand a different solution to our energy needs." NCGA coupled its TV commercial with a series of print ads featuring individual farmers and farm families with one person holding a numbered sign, the number associated with an important statistic. One ad states, "An acre of corn removes 8 tons of harmful greenhouse gas, more than that produced by your car."

Ken Colombini, director of communications for the NCGA, says the ad campaign was developed to advance the success of the Renewable Fuels Reinvestment Act, and to assist with the inclusion of pro-corn ethanol provisions in the proposed energy bill. "Whatever the vehicle, NCGA supports energy legislation extending the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit and the tariff on imported ethanol," Colombini says. "If VEETC expires at the end of this year, U.S. ethanol production capacity could decrease by 38 percent and impact rural communities most heavily. For corn farmers, this also could mean a 30 cent per bushel price drop."

Darrin Ihnen, president of the NCGA, also cites the future energy bill in talking about NCGA's investment of more than $1 million in the new campaign for ethanol. "Legislation is before Congress to continue much needed incentives and there is a new energy bill on the horizon, making it an important and critical time to talk about ethanol's many environmental and economic benefits to our country."

As the NCGA commercial plays out on the screen, it makes the case that the answer to our energy needs are right here in the U.S. "One answer grows in our own backyard," the commercial states,"turning American corn into America's energy." Pointing to a June 21 USDA study citing the improved efficiency of corn ethanol production, Ihnen adds, "it's no wonder we're saying Now is the time for ethanol.' The industry is making great progress and corn growers have another record crop in the field so we can meet all needs." Overlapping an image of a young farming family, the voice in the commercial adds, "We feed the world. We can fuel it, too."

Poet's television campaign, launched well before the oil spill, aims at telling the story of ethanol to a larger audience, according to Greg Breukelman, Poet's senior vice president of communications. In three separate commercials featuring a plant manager, a farmer and a scientist, the camera zooms in on the person speaking freely amongst people bustling by, in a place where cornfields are miles awayNew York City. The plant manager wearing a hard hat, a pair of khakis and holding a clipboard, starts his free verse poem, "American Dollar, a poem," and goes on to say, "The dollar is still building the tallest buildings in the world. It just built one in Dubai. $250 billion a year for foreign oil will go a long way." The commercial ends with the speaker (a fictional character named Steve Ross) walking away into the crowd of people on a busy street. A phrase on the screen then comes into focus saying, "For every billion gallons of ethanol produced, we create 20,000 American jobs." Similarly, Poet's other two commercials also include a free verse poem on the subject of ethanol. The farmer spot shows a man dressed in a faded brown Carhart jacket with baseball cap in hand speaking about what his family can do for America: "Give me a little rain mixed with a little sun. I'll give you plenty of food with fuel to boot. And I'll do the same thing tomorrow." And the commercial featuring a woman scientist dressed in a white lab coat tells the viewer, "I turn waste into fueland one day I'll let you tell the Middle East where they can ship their tankers."

It wasn't just the U.S. industry reaching out to consumers. UNICA, the Brazilian Sugarcane Association aired its commercial during the 99th edition of the Indianapolis 500. Several Indy car drivers including well-known driver Helio Castroneves, say in the spots, "I compete with sugarcane ethanol." The commercials "seek to educate American consumers about sugarcane ethanol and how it can benefit their pockets, the environment and the market," says Joel Velasco, UNICA's chief representative in North America.

The Verbal
While plant managers reciting poetry, family farmers holding signs or Indy 500 drivers promoting the fuel in their cars, all help shape a new face for ethanol on the television screen, there are other important, less visible measures being taken. Following the gulf oil spill, the Renewable Fuels Association president and CEO Bob Dinneen wrote to President Obama, closing with the statement: "I encourage you to unleash the ingenuity and productivity of American farmers and ethanol producers to help end America's dangerous addiction to petroleum." The letter to the president is only one example of the group's highly successful and informed pursuit to promote, educate and lobby for the use of ethanol. RFA has turned to using new media to spread the ethanol message. Robert White, director of market development for the RFA, recently won an award for his role in using social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. "Robert is certainly a deserving recipient of this award," said Dinneen. "His recognition is evidence of the commitment RFA has made to utilizing all available outlets to spread the word about the exciting evolution of America's ethanol industry."

Boiling the ethanol story down to a simple message was the goal of Growth Energy's series of television ads that, by a stroke of luck considering they were developed well before the oil spill, include the statement "No beaches have been closed due to ethanol spills." In a combination of visual and verbal elements, the Growth Energy spots feature a single statement over a bright green background. Phrases such as "No wars have been fought over ETHANOL," or "We won't have to wait millions of years to replenish our ETHANOL reserves," linger on the screen before the Growth Energy logo appears. There is no alarming image, no actual face speaking, just a factual statement on a green screen. The advertisements first appeared on television in April and the messages have been plastered across a Washington D.C. metro station. "There is no question as to ethanol's benefitswe are just seeking to turn up the volume and target our audience at a critical time," says Chris Thorne, director of public affairs for Growth Energy.

Arguing that the nation is in a critical time following the Gulf spill, or that Americans want to move away from foreign fossil fuels, given the CFA survey answers, might seem easy. But, Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol, points out that the industry needs to be respectful in the way it promotes itself in the aftermath of the tragedy. "We don't have to choose to rely on oil," Jennings he says. "We could pivot to the alternatives that are here now, which is primarily corn ethanol."

That corn ethanol is a viable alternative to oil won't be the automatic conclusion, however. Thus it is providential that multiple campaigns to boost the image of ethanol appeared just when an oil crisis erupted and anticipating another tough fight in Washington. In more than one recent report from organizations pushing for investment in clean energy, a long list of worthy alternatives is givenwithout a word about renewable fuels or biofuels, let alone the word ethanol. Going directly to the American public may be just what is needed. EP

Luke Geiver is an associate editor of Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach him at (701) 738-4944 or