BP will go down in history for a number of reasons. The company will forever be known as being responsible for the largest oil spill in US history, for leaving hundreds of people without jobs in the Gulf region, for killing an incalculable amount of wildlife, and for altering the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico for decades to come. It’s a severe understatement to say that the company’s reputation has been tainted in the last few months. BP knows this, and they are on damage control. But the frantic efforts to repair their image have of course come with some intense advertising.
While BP has published and broadcasted a variety of different advertising since April 20, one particular advertising campaign seems particularly long running and wide spread. The advertisement’s title is “Making This Right” and lists seven subjects concerning the oil spill. These include: beaches, claims, cleanup, economic investment, environmental restoration, health and safety and wildlife. As part of one large campaign, BP publishes full-page ads focusing on one of these seven categories for a period of time and then switches to another. For example, the beaches version of the advertisement includes a large color picture of people cleaning up the beaches in the Gulf, a paragraph explaining this effort and a telephone number for people to call should they see oil on the beach. The last sentence says, “We may not always be perfect, but we will make this right.”
After seeing this advertisement run practically every other day in several major newspapers, Greenpeace became curious about how much BP was paying to run these large ads so frequently. We began collecting the advertisements throughout the month of June from three major newspapers: The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post. We kept track of how many times the ad appeared and whether or not it was in color or black and white. When June ended, we began making calls to these publications to find out how much it was costing the oil giant. After getting estimates from advertising executives and looking at their advertising rate cards online, we found that BP had spent over $5.6 million in one month on advertising in three papers.
Kate Sheppard, a journalist for Mother Jones, used Greenpeace’s total as the basis for a story, which ran earlier this month. In her article, Sheppard also brought to light that BP often also has the option of choosing where their advertisements are printed in the paper, so they can easily place the large advertisements next to a story about the spill; a commonly used, deceptive advertising practice.
$5.6 million is an astounding amount, but a drop in the bucket to the third largest energy company in the world. However, its important to note that the total we calculated is only for one month and only for three papers. Additionally, we discovered that the Washington Post had a bulk rate discount, meaning that they got cut a break.
The real total that has been spent on all advertising since the disaster occurred is many more times the amount that we found. In the end, it will certainly be interesting to see how much it will take to repair a reputation with such a deep scar. However, it might be safe to say that even the largest color ads couldn’t fix what’s already been done.
A few weeks ago, we published an article exposing a serious piece of greenwash that ran in the Washington Post in early June. Southern Company, a notoriously high carbon dioxide emitter and avid opponent of clean energy solutions, ran this half-page advertisement, promoting the idea of “clean coal.”
We analyzed the advertisement, its falsities, as well as its long history of promoting unsustainable, environmental practices.
After becoming familiar with this ad’s little cartoon sketch and the message that it is “common sense” not to eliminate coal, when we discovered ads with similar features, we knew that they were additions to this company’s greenwashing archive.
Wrapped around the most recent July/August edition of Smithsonian Magazine was a two-page pamphlet with four Southern Company advertisements. At the top of the first page, the Smithsonian masthead is printed, so that the wrapper actually resembles a part of the magazine. Three of the ads are different versions of the original that we first saw in the Post, which was also re-printed in the wrapper as well.
They all have similar cartoon illustrations, and their messages are also based around the idea of “common sense.
The wrapper reveals that the one ad we caught in the Post is actually linked to a series of greenwashing advertisements and an entire campaign constructed by the company. See here for more information.
While all of these advertisements in the Smithsonian wrapper make a variety of different claims, one of the four is highlighted below.
Similar to the first ad in the Post, here Southern Company again states that it is working on the first zero-emissions coal-fired generating plant and writes that “common sense says to reduce our dependence on foreign energy” we must “use what’s under our own feet.” To complement and emphasize this statement, the picture shows a figure plugging a cord into an outlet situated on a map of the United States. Under the illustration is the statement, “The United States has a 200-year supply of coal.”
With this ad, the company sends the message that we should use America’s coal supply, (under our feet,) to power the country, and makes claims that using coal could become a zero-emissions process.
But their message is clearly false and irresponsible. Clean coal is only a myth: an idea created by industry. The fact is that coal is actually the largest source of mercury pollution in the United States and has left both air and water across the country irreversibly damaged and polluted.
Additionally, the statement that the U.S. has a 200-year supply of coal, further demonstrates that it is not a long-term or sustainable solution for the future. It will run out, and it will destroy the environment everyday until it does.
Another advertisement in the wrapper promotes the idea of using multiple energy sources. It’s text reads: “Common sense says don’t use just one,” and the illustration now shows the figure pushing a wheelbarrow full of symbols used to represent wind, nuclear, coal and switchgrass. Southern Company says that it has conducted $400 million in research on these different sources.
However, when considering the fact that the company serves approximately 4.3 million customers on nearly only coal, it’s hard to believe that it would truly be focusing on renewable or clean sources.
Additionally, Southern Company shows its support for nuclear power in this advertisement, a practice that will never be safe or clean; a practice that puts both the environment and human health at serious risk.
It’s clear that Southern Company has been working hard to get the public to believe that they care about the future of energy in this country. In fact, advertising in the Smithsonian magazine in particular, was probably strategic.
The company wants its message to reach the elite; people with power; people who can support the company and it’s endeavors; people like the readership of Smithsonian Magazine. According to the magazine’s 2010 Reader Profile, most of its readers are professionals and managers, wealthy, own a home, are married and college educated. The median household income of a 2010 Smithsonian reader is $71,917. Thirty five percent of the audience holds a professional or managerial position and 80% own a home.
Additionally, the advertising wrapper went out to only the DC market of the magazine, a place where the most influential subscribers would most likely live. According to an advertising representative from Smithsonian, the wrapper cost the company approximately $150,000.
Southern Company’s advertising strategy was not at all random. They were clearly targeting certain individuals that they believed would have power.
But implementing a clever and catchy campaign that includes cute illustrations doesn’t make their intentions or claims valid and/or truthful. After learning about who this company really is, “common sense says” they shouldn’t be trusted.
When I opened nytimes.com last week, I thought that I was on the wrong site. The page I had known with everyday (as it is my homepage) was suddenly foreign to me. At 7 a.m., this threw me. I sat back for a second, wondering what I was looking at; wondering why it wasn’t familiar.
Instead of headlines and a usually captivating example of photojournalism, the New York Times masthead was sandwiched between the Shell logo on one side and the words “A new energy future is dawning. The world will be on the road to sustainable mobility” on the other. Below was a giant, interactive advertisement with a timeline showing energy milestones throughout history. Below the timeline it says, “A new energy future is dawning. The world will be on the road to sustainable mobility.”
The ad is literally so large that no news stories or their headlines can be seen without scrolling down. It is so dominating that it seems like a parodied version of the New York Times site; almost a joke on the “power” of advertising. For a second, I thought that Shell might have actually purchased the newspaper overnight.
But the bigger joke is that Shell is the one sponsoring this monstrosity; that the company that drills for oil across the world is probably paying for this “sustainable energy” ad with money tied to fossil fuels. Both the price tag of New York Times advertising as well as the costs to the environment to get the money for this advertisement is high.
Although this example is an extreme one, Shell has a history of this behavior. In fact, on SourceWatch, Shell and greenwashing is the first category under a search of the company. They have greenwashed in both UK and American media. In 2008, they were found guilty by the British Advertising Standards Authority for false advertising concerning their operations in the tar sands.
At the top of the most recent advertisement on the New York Times, the company wrote, “Long-term energy demand will continue to soar. Shell is pushing the frontiers of energy exploration and squeezing more from existing resources to unlock new energy for the future.”
It is true. They are “squeezing” and depleting resources every day that they drill across the world, while also taking a risk at the expense of the environment. They are pushing it. They are willing to take risks like drilling in deep water (Shell currently owns The Perdido Spar, the deepest oil rig in the world, located in the Gulf of Mexico) and they are well known for operating unsafe wells and causing oil spills in Nigeria.
But they certainly aren’t exploring for new or sustainable energy. They are exploring for what the company has always made profit from: oil.