Does 'fracking' need a new name?
The slang for hydraulic fracturing sounds dirty and disconcerting -- and now a study finds it even curbs support for the controversial gas-drilling technique.
Hydraulic fracturing is no stranger to criticism. Better-known as "fracking," the gas-drilling technique has been linked to environmental problems such as groundwater pollution, toxic air emissions and earthquakes, and it's spurring a "golden age" of natural gas that environmentalists worry will dampen demand for renewable energy.
But according to a recent study from Louisiana State University, part of the problem might be the word "fracking" itself. That's not to say semantics are responsible for flammable tap water, but the study does link phrasing to public opinion. In a survey of 731 randomly selected Louisiana residents, researchers found people were less likely to support hydraulic fracturing when they heard it called "fracking." In other words, the study suggests gas companies would benefit from using other words.
"Public aversion to the term likely results from the harsh consonants and perhaps the obvious similarity to a certain other four-letter word," LSU's Michael Climek says in a press release. "And this research shows that the unpleasant sound of the word is at least partially responsible for residents thinking 'fracking' is unsafe and that it should not be pursued by the state of Louisiana. If businesses and legislators use another word or description, constituents may be more willing to support hydraulic fracturing."
Of course, since it's impossible to assess whether hydraulic fracturing is safe based on its name, this is irrelevant from an environmental or public-health perspective. The LSU study is all about marketing, focusing on how to make fracking sound safe rather than actually making it safe. But that's the point of marketing — it's up to engineers and scientists to fix a product; marketers just make products seem cool.
As one marketing executive told American Public Media's Marketplace this week, the problem with "fracking" is that it describes the process a little too honestly. "The root of it is 'fracture,' and that's just not a very positive thing," said David Placek, CEO of Lexicon Branding. "Whether there's a fracture in a political party, or you fracture your arm, it's just nothing but negative connotations." Plus, in addition to evoking a well-known English expletive, Placek points out that "frack" is also similar to "frak," a made-up curse word from the TV show "Battlestar Galactica."
Among the survey respondents who heard the word "fracking," 35 percent called the process "somewhat safe" or "very safe," and 39 percent said Louisiana should encourage it. When the word wasn't used, those numbers grew to 43 and 52 percent, respectively. Instead of "fracking," the latter group heard only this description: "a way to extract natural gas that involves using a high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals to remove natural gas from rocks deep in the Earth's surface."
That phrasing may be less provocative, but it's still a mouthful. So, in the spirit of catchphrase marketing, we came up with a few alternatives that sound safer and more marketable. Let us know what you think in the poll above or in the comments below — but don't forget to watch your fracking language.