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The Justin Bieber Inhaler: How Peabody Energy Bungled Its Public Punking

Coal giant Peabody Energy has joined a growing list of the publicly punk'd. And right on cue, Peabody followed the failed strategy of nearly every other recently parodied company with a defensive and out-of-touch spoof-worthy response.

A fake Peabody Energy website popped up this week announcing Coal Caresâ„¢, a charitable campaign to hand out free Puff-Puffâ„¢ inhalers to families living within 200 miles of any coal plant. The inhalers, which were decorated with kid-and tween-themed images like Justin Bieber and Elmo, were aimed at allowing kids to "inhale with pride."
Pranksters for the win! For Peabody, meanwhile...

The prank was a success for Coal is Killing Kids, the activist group behind the caper. It introduced the public to Peabody Energy, a company that spent $6.5 million last year lobbying against pollution standards for power plants. And it raised awareness about coal's impact on public health.

But it was Peabody's response that delivered the real damage. It should have stopped with its press release denouncing the hoax. But instead, the company went on to brag about coal's health benefits and specifically mentioned a United Nations study that has linked life expectancy and income with per-capita electricity use.

Yes, electricity improves quality of life. But coal emissions also cause major health problems. Of course, Peabody fails to mention the hidden costs of coal -- which, by the way, are massive. In the U.S., the public health impacts of coal costs the economy $140 billion to $242 billion a year.

So, you've been punk'd. Now what?
The fossil fuels industry may not be able to control would-be pranksters. But any company can control how it reacts. Peabody handled it poorly. Koch Industries' response was even worse. The industrial conglomerate filed a lawsuit against environmental pranksters who launched a bogus website and release that falsely announced the company had changed its stance on climate change. A federal judge recently threw out Koch Industries' lawsuit. Damned First Amendment protections!

Chevron tried to control its response to a spoof of its We Agree campaign back in October, but was doubly punk'd in the process. Chevron outed the fake release on its website and on its official Twitter account. But the pranksters were poised and ready and issued their own fake release -- still pretending to be the oil company -- responding to Chevron's response to the hoax.

Take the propaganda parody test
The fossil fuel industry -- and companies in other unpopular sectors like banking -- could do themselves a gigantic favor by avoiding campaigns that are so easy to parody. Take the Friends of Coal, a volunteer organization that is essentially an extension of the West Virginia Coal Association. Two years ago the group put out a "Let's Learn About Coal" coloring book for kids. I was convinced it was some hilarious spoof until I discovered it was a real, live pro-coal industry propaganda item.

Here's the trick with propaganda. The idea is to promote and sell your product, not become the butt of the joke. Examples of bad ideas:

Photo from Coal Care website via Coal is Killing Kids

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