The Old "Smog-eating Building" ...


There are certain storylines that never go out of style.

David slays Goliath.

Greed isn’t good. (Sorry, Gordy.)


Variations of these themes serve as springboards to business stories all the time.

While I don’t think it’s going to become a classic, Alcoa deserves credit for coining a phrase that demands attention:

Smog-eating building

One doesn’t typically think of a building as an action hero.

While the phrase didn’t make the news release, it dominated Alcoa’s owned media in the campaign.

I can imagine the dialog between Alcoa’s communications team and the engineers going something like this:

Engineers: It’s critical that we explain how this technology breaks down organic matter.

Communications: Right. We’ll absolutely do this, but let’s find a way to package the story so the average person can relate to it.

Engineers: Why do we care about the average person? It’s not like he’s going to stop by Home Depot and say, “Hank, give me 300 aluminum panels and make it snappy.”

(Engineers can’t completely muffle their chuckles.)

Communications: True. But this announcement offers a way to showcase Alcoa’s innovation to all audiences including the average person … who does by the way stop by the Home Depot to buy products like our Mastic Brown Aluminum Gutters conveniently offered in a 10-pack, I might add. Look, I don’t want this to come off as negative, but it’s not like we’re churning out innovation after innovation in aluminum panels. We need to really milk this one.

Engineers: OK. (Uttered in a begrudging tone.) What do you have in mind?

Communications: We came up with the perfect phrase to kick off the story: “smog-eating buildings.”

Engineers: That’s just great. And let’s design a poster with Godzilla on the top of the Empire State Building battling the nasty carbon monoxides of the world.

Communications: Now, that might be stretching the metaphor too far. (Missing the sarcasm.)

Engineers: Are you crazy! No way. Even if we liked the phrase – which we don’t – it’s technically inaccurate.

Communications: Technically inaccurate?

Engineers: Exactly. Think about what constitutes a building. Windows. Two-by-fours. Steel beams. Sheetrock. Bad art. To imply that the ENTIRE building eats smog would be a gross exaggeration.

Communications: Anything else?

Engineers: Look, I don’t want to come off as negative, but every word in your phrase is technically inaccurate.

Communications: Let’s hear it.

Engineers: We’ve already established that it’s not the building. It’s the aluminum panels. Plus, the panels don’t eat anything. Eating implies the mastication of food for nourishment. In our case, free radicals infiltrate the molecules of organic matter and break them down into harmless particles. Does that sound like a meal to you?

Communications: Got it.

Engineers: Even the word smog isn’t right. Smog is one form of air pollution produced by the photochemical reaction of sunlight with hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. We go beyond smog … like diesel fumes and bird poop.

Communications: That’s good to know. We won’t use the phrase on the data sheet. But we are going to move forward with the phrase for other marketing purposes.

Alcoa’s reward for applying storytelling techniques to an announcement on aluminum panels:

Coverage in publications ranging from Forbes to Fast Company to even USA Today.

I don’t think aluminum panels have enjoyed such a high profile since Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito in Tin Men.

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