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This is all the gas industry's fault
The gas industry's marketing has influenced American culture as quietly as the fumes from their much-beloved stoves.
Controversy over gas stoves has dominated the news cycle this week. It started after a study found that pollution from gas stoves causes one in eight cases of childhood asthma. Asked for reaction, the head of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission told Bloomberg that “Products that can’t be made safe can be banned.”
Conservatives’ brains then collectively imploded. The White House had to clarify that they were not banning gas stoves. Debates broke out on social media and beyond about the benefits of electric versus gas ranges. These debates were deemed by several news outlets as the newest culture war in America.
This particular American culture war, however, is not exactly “new.” The gas versus electric stove debate has been ongoing in American culture for nearly a century. And though this culture war may have appeared to be fought primarily by people expressing personal consumer preference, it’s always been fought primarily by the gas industry, whose propaganda has infiltrated the average American’s life as quietly as the fumes from their much-beloved stoves.
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A common slogan to crush electric stoves
It can be hard to fully appreciate the effect that fossil fuel industry marketing has had on shaping American culture and values—and thus how difficult it can be to undo its conditioning. But in the case of the Great Gas Stove Debate, a good way to start would be to consider the phrase, “Now you’re cookin’ with gas.”
This incredibly common saying means something like “You’re on the right track,” or “You’re improving.” Until this week, it was a phrase that even I’d sometimes used to respond to options I thought were better than others.
Amid this news cycle, though, I started to wonder: Why do I use this phrase, and why does it mean those things? Surely it just evolved naturally from people who enjoyed cooking with gas. Right?
Wrong. As it turns out, every time I’ve used the phrase “Now you’re cookin’ with gas,” I’ve been repeating a fossil fuel industry-created slogan designed to discourage the use of electric stoves.
According to ABC’s WYTV 33 in Ohio, the phrase was originally thought up by a publicist for the American Gas Association, a prominent gas industry trade group. It was the late 1930s, and “a lot of people were still cooking on stoves fueled with wood and electric,” the station reported:
An executive named Deke Houlgate worked for the American Gas Association in the 1930s and came up with the phrase.
He knew some of Bob Hope’s writers and planted the phrase with them. Hope began to use it in his comedy routines on the radio.
Inside Energy, an energy-focused news site funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, also reported in 2014 that the saying was “likely coined” by Houlgate while working on behalf of AGA.
Walton Gas, a Georgia-based natural gas company, also outlined the history of the phrase on its website, claiming “it all started because the gas industry wanted women to choose gas ovens instead of electric ones.”
An early example of influencer advertising
The gas industry, however, didn’t want to be the ones debuting “Now you’re cookin’ with gas.” They wanted comedians, actors, and brands to say it on their behalf.
Indeed, at the time of the term’s popularization, the AGA didn’t appear very interested in taking credit for it. In a 1941 article for its monthly magazine, the AGA sort of acted like they had nothing to do with it:
"Now you're cooking with gas" literally took the gas industry by the ears around December 1939 — Remember? — when it flashed forth in brilliant repartee from the radio programs of the Maxwell Coffee Hour, Jack Benny, Chase and Sanborn, Johnson Wax, Bob Hope and sundry others.
Gas men began to listen as they had never listened before, kinda hoping to hear more, yet not knowing whether to be glad or mad, dazed or dazzled by such widespread FREE publicity on TIME interpreted in terms of national hook-ups involving hundreds of thousands of dollars all told.
It doesn’t appear that others knew the gas industry was behind the term, either. When the New York Times used the saying in a 1941 article, for example, they attributed it to Hope, not the gas industry.
And now, more than 80 years later, the natural gas industry is using the same strategy as it did with “cookin’ with gas”: getting influencers and politicians to promote gas stoves, often without mentioning the gas industry was behind it.
How the gas industry fuels the ongoing culture war
From its appearance in a 1943 Daffy Duck cartoon to its appearance in a 2022 Jeopardy! question, there’s no doubt that “Now you’re cookin’ with gas” played a massive role in elevating the profile of gas stoves over electric ones.
To learn how the industry has tried to mirror that success, there’s no better resource than Rebecca Leber’s 2021 investigation for Mother Jones, titled “How the Fossil Fuel Industry Convinced Americans to Love Gas Stoves.”
The piece includes the origin of “cookin’ with gas,” as well as an incredible four-minute gas industry rap video from 1988 using the phrase. But it also outlines even more tactics the industry has used to fuel the gas stove culture wars in the last few years.
These tactics include disguising representatives as gas stove-loving neighbors in Nextdoor groups; posing as citizen groups to advocate against gas hookup bans; and hiring social media influencers to gush over the products—of course using the hashtag, #CookingWithGas.
In addition, the gas industry is fueling the gas stove culture wars by contributing millions every year to Republican politicians, many of whom just so happen to be same ones freaking out over even the suggestion of a gas stove ban if gas stoves can’t be made safe for children.
That’s something the influencers, politicians, and other veiled representatives of the gas industry never seem to mention: the very real dangers gas stoves pose for both children and adults. Climate change, which gas stoves help fuel by necessitating gas hook-ups in buildings, is also rarely part of their discussion. (Gas- and oil-powered buildings make up a 12 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.)
All told, this is one reason why some Americans get so worked up over gas stoves. It’s not simply because they love their high-polluting products; it’s because they’ve been conditioned by veiled representatives of high-polluting industries to feel like these products are part of their identity. They’ve also been conditioned by those industries to downplay or outright ignore the harms of those products.
That’s why it’s so important to examine why we truly value the things we do, and the unseen forces that may have shaped those values. As I’ve said many times, climate change is not just an emissions problem, but a cultural one. A culture that still thinks “cookin’ with gas” means “doing amazing” is not one that fully grasps this crisis. And it’s definitely not one that understands what must be done to solve it.
The New Soldiers in Propane’s Fight Against Climate Action: Television Stars. “An industry group is spending millions of dollars to push back against efforts to move heating away from oil and gas.” The New York Times, January 2022.
The Gas Industry Is Paying Instagram Influencers to Gush Over Gas Stoves. “The gas cooking Insta–trend is no accident. It’s the result of a carefully orchestrated campaign dreamed up by marketers for representatives with the American Gas Association and American Public Gas Association.” Mother Jones, June 2020.
I Measured the Pollution From My Gas Stove. It Was Bad. “Every night, as we turned on the gas stove or heated up the oven to cook dinner, NO2 levels in both our kitchen and bedroom spiked.” Distilled, January 2022.
Ventilation Isn’t Enough To Make Gas Stoves Safe. “The most effective way to protect human health is to phase out the fossil fuel-powered appliances.” Distilled, January 2022.
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