The world is changing, with positive views of chemistry and science appearing far more commonly on TV these days. That is a great thing, though probably inadequate to swing public opinion pro-chemistry. I have an eye for chemistry, as some of the stories I will relay prove. A few weeks ago, I noticed chemistry where I wasn't expecting it: Saturday Night Live. No chemistry was in the program, but at the commercial breaks, there were depictions of chemical models and mention of chemical terms in one of the ads.
Caring about accurate depictions of chemistry, as I do, is not always a good thing. I get worked up when I see chemistry abused in the media. I hate it when “chemical” is used as a derogatory term and even more when throwaway adjectives like “toxic” are used in front of “chemical.”
I routinely cry foul when my employer’s depictions of chemistry stray too far from what is technically accurate as part of an attempt to make the chemistry accessible to non-chemists or the general public. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and I have been asked multiple times to fact-check visuals prior to their use in company advertising. These demands reached a bit of a summit when I was asked to help plan the video advertisements that ultimately ran in 2014.
I worked with the design team as the scientific advisor. The director wanted chemistry in the videos. Real researchers were brought in and I helped direct them to do “chemistry” things. It became pretty clear that people in white coats look like medical doctors to most viewers so we made molecular models – accurate ones that depicted chemically important molecules the company sells – for our lab coat wearing scientists to hold. It worked, making them look less like medical doctors and more like chemists. We had chemists drawing chemical reactions, engineers solving kinetic expressions, things that were actually relevant to the day-to-day lives of real industrial researchers.
There was a print ad pulled from some of the video shot at the time with a guy in a red baseball hat writing on a chalkboard. The chemical equations he was writing were actually industrially relevant. I wrote out the mechanism for long-chain branching in the production of linear low-density polyethylene. The actor dutifully rendered it on the blackboard. I argued that I couldn’t recall seeing a working chemist in a baseball cap. It was an argument I didn’t win.
Several months ago, I was consulted, not about advertising, but about decoration for the walls of a new building. I was shown artists' renderings of chemistry that didn't look like chemistry to me. There were balls and there were sticks (really more so wires) connecting them. They were connected to form rings and cages of varying sizes. Some of the wires were long, some short. I must have wrinkled my face pretty severely as I was immediately asked, “What’s wrong?” I tried to explain how, while the shapes were appealing, they didn't really look like molecules. I left the meeting promising to pull together some pictures of real molecules, ones with significance to the company.
I borrowed some 3D images from others and drew some myself. It had been stressed that the images would be repeated across an expanse. I played with images of polyethylene, some perfectly straight, others curling and spiraling with branching. I stylized some, elongating and tapering bonds. I made some transparent and played with colors. I moved from a photo-realistic rendering to a more artistic rendering, attempting to give a calligraphy feel to the image. When I met with the graphics designer, I explained that I kept the atoms and their bonds the same size as I played. I also kept the number of bonds and the geometry fixed.
There are not many places where chemistry is used as art, the National Academies building and the American Chemical Society being two I know of. In both these cases, chemistry rules were followed and the art clearly incorporated real molecules. I hope I am able to do as well.
The Saturday Night Live broadcast showed the same chemistry-containing ad twice. It was an ad that I am pretty certain was not checked by a chemist. The depiction of chemistry, while effective at catching my attention, predisposed as I am to noticing chemistry, will not lead to a purchase. I went to the web looking for the ad as I prepared to write this.
The ad caught my eye because 15 seconds in, there were purple molecules tumbling across the screen, specifically methane molecules tumbling toward the camera on a lavender background. The voice-over talks about pH, a chemical concept.
I am 100% certain that the trademarked “lactoprebiotic™” mentioned in the ad is not methane and that each container of Vagisil® pH Balance Wash does not actually contain methane.* The chemical and physical properties of methane just don’t allow it. No plastic bottle on a store shelf is full of methane. Capturing and storing methane is challenging due to its gaseous state under normal conditions for temperature and pressure. I couldn’t find an explanation of the trademarked term in the scientific literature. It must be a term of art, not one of science.
I am left both heartened and disheartened: disheartened because of the inaccuracy, but heartened because molecular models, the chemically accurate term pH, and a chemical sounding trademark were being used to convey goodness. A small victory for chemistry in the mainstream.
*lactoprebiotic™ is a trademark of Combe Incorporated, filing date 2011-07-25 Registration Number 4388630
Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.