Marketers must follow The Guardian and stop enabling oil brands’ hypocrisy

As The Guardian stops taking fossil fuel ads, marketers should take a similar stand and end big oil brands’ strategy of distracting the world from the harm they are doing.

In a brave and important move, The Guardian will no longer accept advertising from oil and gas companies. Announcing the decision on Wednesday, the newspaper’s senior team made it clear the decision was “based on the decades-long efforts by many in that industry to prevent meaningful climate action by governments around the world”.

The decision will have a significant impact on The Guardian’s bottom line. Big oil and gas companies like to do a lot of advertising. And they do it with the kind of global grandeur and double-page largesse that newspapers thrive on. But the boycott is even more significant because of the signal it sends to other media outlets and organisations. The tide is turning, finally, on the large oil and gas companies.

About 15 years ago I wrote a column about Exxon Mobil’s use of public relations and advertising to mask its true purpose and impact on the Earth. While it was first-rate marketing, I argued the ultimate effect would one day be recognised as catastrophic.

But the biggest error I made was suggesting that BP, at the time on a major mission to push its environmental credentials under the strapline ‘Beyond Petroleum’, was following a better and more hopeful path. That turned out to be total bollocks too.

All the large oil and gas companies wave one, bright green hand in the air in an expensive and effective attempt at global distraction.

While Exxon Mobil used PR, lobbying and advertising to obfuscate and impede the recognition of global climate change, BP was using brand repositioning and corporate identity to achieve exactly the same ends. And I, a supposedly switched-on branding professor from London Business School, should have seen BP for what it was. Not what it pretended to be thanks to a logo from Landor and an arseload of progressive, optimistic adjectives.

In the 15 years since I wrote my silly little column, the oil and gas giants have not just continued their relentless, impressive and utterly despicable attempt to hold back the global recognition of the climate crisis and their own complicity, they have increased and refined it.

It’s brilliantly executed and wonderfully successful. But it is also corporate duplicity of the highest possible order.

One green hand, one black hand

All the large oil and gas companies wave one, bright green hand in the air in an expensive and effective attempt at global distraction. That hand points to sustainable new technology, an idealistic future of solutions, and positive, non-descript slogans that connote progressive, clean and advanced approaches.

Meanwhile, the other hand – black and dripping with oil – continues to operate under the table in a manner completely at odds with the company’s purported image and our planet’s long-term interests. Provided the green hand wafts airily and extravagantly enough to distract us, the black hand can keep exploiting the planet with impunity.

Take BP, for example. It sponsors worthy causes like the Paralympics and great institutions like the Royal Opera House and the British Museum. Last year, the company launched its biggest global advertising campaign in a decade with the help of Ogilvy. Under the strapline ‘Keep Advancing’, its ads show renewable energy farms, solar-powered cars, happy baaing sheep, smiling children and lots of very green fields.

What a load of cock. Currently, around 96% of BP’s capital expenditure is on oil and gas. I am going to just duplicate those last sentences again because they bear repeating. Load of cock, 96% of capital expenditure on oil and gas.

While BP’s flashy green hand spends its significant ad budget on green, progressive, happy advertising, its black one is almost entirely devoted to fossil fuels, regressive practices and climate-destroying operations. BP has continued to do what it is doing with oil and gas not despite all of its green hand waving but because of it. The green hand covers the black one completely. And the dirty business of oil continues unabated.

And BP is not alone in operating a green hand/black hand policy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) keeps global tabs on all the major energy companies. Its latest report, published this month, provides a sobering reality check to set against all those green fields and smiling babies.

What with all those ads featuring young, progressive scientists in white coats looking to the future and long, lingering shots of solar facilities, you might imagine that renewable energy is now at the heart of the world’s energy development. For 20 years or more the big oil companies have been selling us a cleaner, greener future just around the corner in their gleaming ads.

But according to the IEA’s assessment of the large oil and gas companies and their current operations, renewable energy represents slightly less than 1% of their investments. I will state that one again too. According to the IEA, renewable energy represents slightly less than 1% of these company’s investments.

Chart: Simon Evans

As the environmentalist Simon Evans, who created the pie chart above from the IEA data, noted last week: “Very occasionally, this most hated of data visualisation tools (the humble pie chart) is actually a good way to tell the story of oil and gas industry investment in clean energy.”

He is 100% right. This single, stupidly simple, pie chart tells you all you need to know. It should be printed and affixed to every BP ad from now on. Right next to the smiling baby.

It would be unfair to pick on just BP and its disingenuous attempt to hide its black operations with a distracting green hand. We could just as easily talk about Shell and its bullshit campaign with the strapline ‘Make the Future’, which showcases sustainable projects in places like Kenya and Brazil.

You have to hand it to the hypocrites at Shell. It takes a remarkable degree of insularity and bullshit to combine sustainability, diversity and purpose while simultaneously fucking up the planet in such a dramatic fashion.

Shell also created ‘The Great Travel Hack’, a YouTube show featuring celebrities and influencers battling it out to traverse the globe using the lowest possible CO2 emissions. It’s just as slick as BP’s corporate communications. And its just as shameful. Gaze back up the page to the big black pie chart and repeat after me, S-H-A-M-E-F-U-L.

And then there is the biggest, darkest bastard of them all – Exxon Mobil. Its advertising promotes new technology like ‘carbon capture’, which it says it is “working on ways to improve”.

Do you notice how it’s always active verbs in oil advertising? The companies are always working, never finishing. Always looking to a bright future, not dwelling on the terrifying, depressing present.

Exxon Mobil recently worked with BBDO to target Generation Z with a series of ads using ‘Miniature Science’. The ads aired across Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, and demonstrated how algae can be (again, can be, not is being) used to create low-emission biofuels and how landfill gas can be used to generate energy.

“This was an opportunity to talk to an audience with no brand predispositions and pull them in with creativity,” explained BBDO New York senior creative director Mark Girand. “Our Gen Z target consume videos primarily on their phones. They are visual learners, and they care about authenticity.”

Judging by the response to Exxon Mobil’s advertising it would appear that Generation Z’s desire for “authenticity” trumps their propensity for being “pulled in by creativity” when it comes to Exxon Mobil. “Do the right thing – go out of business” is about the politest response I could find on Twitter.

If this was an undergraduate marketing class we would now get very vexed. Brands must be authentic. There cannot be any contradiction between corporate reality and advertising image. But this is not an undergraduate class in marketing.

You and I, and the massed army of marketers working for the big oil companies and their ad agencies know exactly what is going on. And it has been working for three decades. If BP, Shell and Exxon Mobil can convince you of a positive future and the fiction that they are working in a significant way on alternate power sources, they can continue with business as almost usual for a few more multibillion-dollar years.

Marketers make hyposcrisy possible

If you spend enough money, sow enough reputational doubt, sponsor enough worthy institutions and show enough green fields in your ads, you can get away with anything. The planet might be broken, but the big oil model of obfuscation and distraction isn’t. So just keep going with the attractive scientists, green pastures and ever more optimistic slogans.

I’ve assiduously avoided using the term ‘greenwashing’ for this kind of dark corporate duality, because I find it to be an overused and underwhelming description of what these companies are doing. Perhaps no word exists to properly capture it. What these large oil and gas companies have been doing – oh so successfully – for the past three decades is more than greenwashing. It’s a devastating, despicable and entirely deliberate act that needs a different level of terminology to capture the level of animosity we should aim at it.

A true brand purpose doesn’t boost profit, it sacrifices it

And animosity is the only response that works. We need more interventions like that of The Guardian if we want things to change. When the Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance, a beautiful man by any standard, resigned from his beloved Royal Shakespeare Company over its association with BP last year, he was taking a very important stand.

“I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer, a tobacco salesman or anyone who wilfully destroys the lives of others alive and unborn,” Rylance explained. “Nor, I believe, would William Shakespeare.”

Bang! That’s how you do it. And a few months later the RSC severed all ties with BP. “Amid the climate emergency, which we recognise, young people are now saying clearly to us that the BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC. We cannot ignore that message,” the Company explained in a statement. Again, bang!

This year should be the start of a concerted move away from Big Oil that directly involves marketers. As sponsorship experts, we should now recognise the inherent reputational risk of allowing BP, Shell, Exxon Mobil and any other large oil and gas company anywhere near major events and organisations.

Marketers have been part of the smokescreen that has enabled this problem to occur.

Marketers should follow the lead of the National Theatre, which ended its own links to Shell in October. Both the Science Museum and the British Museum should follow suit and feel collective organisational shame for not doing so yet.

Marketers working for other sponsoring brands that find their own logo brushing up against those of the big oil companies should also push hard for their removal or threaten their own withdrawal. And none of us should feel comfortable on panels or at events where these companies provide speakers or funding of any kind. I abhor political correctness, but this cause is real and we should all act accordingly.

A final word on those men and women that work in marketing at the big oil and gas companies. None of you are evil. All of us have done work we were later regretful about. Certainly, you do not deserve any personal vitriol from anyone. But, with respect, it is time to look for a better class of marketing job.

Your current role is beneath you. It’s not just that you are working for abominable corporations that have proven to be thoroughly without scruples for the last two decades, it’s that the marketing function you execute so well is directly enabling these abominable activities to continue. You are too good to devote your precious time to this.

Have a think about your legacy. And if that doesn’t work, think about how your CV is going to look in 10 years’ time with BP or Shell somewhere in the middle on LinkedIn.

All of us have been hoodwinked for too long. It’s time to see the big oil companies for what they are and what they do, not what they say they are and what they pretend to do. They are 99% black, not green, despite what they would have us believe from their advertising. The big pie chart has spoken.

It is time to applaud titles like The Guardian, individuals like Mark Rylance and organisations like the RSC for severing ties with companies that are doing untold damage to the planet while covering their tracks with incredibly effective, incredibly damaging advertising. Marketers have been part of the smokescreen that has enabled this problem to occur; it is surely time for us to be part of the solution.