No matter how you frame oil: in a fancy television commercial or newspaper ad featuring different shades of green, a popular song, or a logo of the sun, it will still always be oil. This is the truth no matter how well crafted a marketing spin really is. It isn’t exactly easy to put on green-tinted glasses and see oil in a different way. However, it’s what BP has been trying to do for years.
Ironically however, even oil companies have picked up on society’s drive for the words “eco-friendly,” and the dirtiest of companies are attempting to benefit from it. In the greenwashing game, profit often comes before any reputation of honesty or respect for the true meaning of “green.” Today, BP plays the game with a lot of guts.
For some time, Greenpeace has been covering BP’s greenwashing schemes. However, now that they are responsible for what could become the largest oil spill in U.S. history, we felt that recapping on their long history of environmental ploys is vital. Perhaps not all of BP’s deception has been as serious as their gross underestimate of how much oil is truly pouring from their rig. However, their smaller duplicities, the ones that haven’t left as physical or destructive of footprints, have simply served as a foundation for the much larger ones.
The goal to be painted green: The truth behind the marketing
Last year, Greenpeace awarded the BP the first “Emerald Paintbrush” award for greenwashing. Greenpeace in the UK attempted to present the company with a trophy: a paintbrush covered in green paint.
But BP wasn’t exactly cordial when accepting. See this video of Greenpeace UK attempting to deliver the award.
The award was granted to the company in recognition of its 2008 multimillion dollar marketing campaign, boldly stating a pledge to alternative energy. But the clever catchphrases, such as “from the earth to the sun and everything in between” and “the best way out of the energy fix is an energy mix,” which define their ‘green’ advertising, are hardly more than statements created from a well-paid public relations flack.
Greenpeace UK calculated information from company documents and found that the company’s investments do not match their public relations statements. BP invested 93 percent of investments into oil and gas in comparison to 2.79 percent on biofuel and 1.39 percent on solar initiatives. The ratio speaks for itself. It demonstrates (in actual numbers), the misleading nature of BP’s marketing claims of dedication toward alternative energy.
But the desire to be branded as ‘green’ has been a decade long goal for BP. In 2000, the company launched its $200 million advertising campaign to highlight a more environmental side. Their popular idiom “Beyond Petroleum” was also developed at this time.
In 2001, BP received a “Campaign of the Year Award” from PRWeek in the category of “product brand development” for that campaign, according to Source Watch.
This photo and the one above were recently taken by Greenpeace photographers at the scene of the oil spill along the Louisiana coast. Here, that same ‘Beyond Petroleum’ catchphrase simply stands as an ironic and perverse indication that oil is the true focus of this company.
But should there be any surprise?
Since the branding began in 2000, the company has been absolving itself of any accountability to its marketing.
For example, in 2009 BP further affirmed that it was never truly committed to alternative energy when that division of the company in London was shut down. Vivienne Cox, the director of solar and wind power for the company resigned at the same time. Shortly before the entire division was cut, BP’s solar projects in both Spain and the United States were ended, cutting hundreds of jobs.
The same time last year BBC reported that BP had decided to shift its priorities from being "green" to being "responsible," backing away from their environmentally friendly commitment.
"The new brand value, 'Responsible', encompasses BP's original aspirations towards the environment, in addition to other key areas such as safety and social welfare," said spokesman for the company, David Nicholas, in a April 2009 BBC story. "Our aspirations remain absolutely unchanged: no accidents, no harm to people and no damage to the environment."
A history of harm past deceptive advertising
No accidents? No harm to people, or damage to the environment? Considering the current situation, it might be an incredible underestimate to say that they haven’t exactly met their “aspirations”. While society watches as BP oil floats in a thick layer on the top of the Gulf waters destroying natural habitats and ecosystems as well as hurting the seafood industry, fisherman and locals along the coast, the quote is a biting incongruity.
However, it should be well known that the most recent oil spill is not the first time that BP has not kept its aspirations to be safe or responsible. It’s not just misleading advertising and marketing strategies related to alternative energy that define the company’s historical relationship to the environment. In fact, there have been a number of more detrimental actions than just deceptive branding.
In 2005, an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City injured 170 people, killing 15. The company faced approximately $87 million in fines for safety hazards at the refinery including settling with the families of the victims of the explosion for $1.6 billion. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA, BP was charged with “willful”safety violations, meaning a company was aware of the hazards and violations.
A year after Texas City, in 2006, BP became responsible for the largest spill on the North Slope in Alaska. A corroded pipeline in Prudhoe Bay dumped 200,000 gallons of oil over the course of 5 days. It was estimated to have covered two acres. Months later, the pipeline leaked 1,000 gallons again.
And in 2007, OSHA also fined BP again for safety violations at their Toledo, Ohio refinery. The violations were synched with the cause of the 2005 refinery explosion.
The Center for Public Integrity also recently found that in total, BP was responsible for 97 percent of all violations found in the past three years.
Considering these instances, there is no wonder or surprise in the fact that safety is being considered as a factor in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. A recent investigation by Representative Henry Waxman found that the rig’s “blowout preventer” had a leak in the hydraulic system and that it had failed a pressure test hours before the explosion. This finding was exacerbated when a whistleblower in the industry said that BP was aware of safety issues related to the Atlantis, another deepwater rig in the Gulf.
Despite the significant amount of evidence proving that they had a history of safety violations, serious irony occurred on the same day of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Also on April 20, BP flew officials onto the rig to celebrate its safety record. The circumstances almost seem too strange to be real: something that would happen in a comedic cartoon of the event.
While it’s not exactly a secret that many companies have piggy backed on the swelling wave of interest in the term ‘green,’ it’s slightly ironic that BP, with this kind of history would have the fortitude to ever consider themselves a truly environmentally friendly company.
Group vice president for marketing for BP, Anna Catalano, once told the New York Times that BP is "the company that goes beyond what you expect from an oil company -- frank, open, honest and unapologetic."
Given the information above and the current oil spill, it’s hard to agree that the first three of the above adjectives accurately describe this company. Its clear that one of these applies.