What does it take to run a successful, modern oil company?

You'd be forgiven for thinking it's just drills, pipelines, and lawyers. But there's an even more crucial element - the trust and approval of people like you and me.

One way of building this trust is to actually avoid drilling in extremely deep water, or stop risking the fragile Arctic ocean with giant rigs.

Alternatively, you can sponsor museums and sporting events to improve your image without making any real changes at all.

You might have guessed which one they chose.

Exxon sponsors the Bislett Games in Oslo, where our polar bears and activists have been in action this week.

  • Gazprom spends an estimated $45m each year to get its logo plastered over the UEFA Champions League
  • BP has signed a multi-million dollar deal to see its bright green sunflower pop up in places like the Tate gallery and British Museum.
  • Shell gets massive brand publicity for working with Ferrari and Formula 1 racing
  • Statoil's support for the Rodeo Rockstar talent contest brings Norway to the heart of Texas.

A picture is developing. A picture in which the oil industry uses a tiny fraction of its yearly profits to clean up their dirty image.

There's actually a term for this: 'building social license to operate'. BP describe it as "being trusted to be a force for good in the communities where we operate." Without this unwritten public acceptance, it becomes increasingly hard for them to do what they do.

This money is often spent in the places they want to drill, but we're increasingly seeing it in countries where they're headquartered or have a high-profile brands.

Despite being an archaeologist with a peculiar passion for the Dark Ages, I still haven't brought myself a ticket for the fantastic looking Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the British Museum here in London. Why? Because its got BP's disreputable mitts all over it.

Apparently BP is involved because it owns a platform in the North Sea named after Magnus the Martyr, a notorious Viking raider. That's right. BP is spending a small fortune to have its logo prominently displayed throughout one of the most eagerly-anticipated and popular exhibitions London has seen in years because it happens to have an old rig with a Nordic name.

Perhaps the heads of the museums, galleries and sports events don't see they are being used. The boss of the Tate gallery defended BP after the Gulf of Mexico spill, saying "you don't abandon your friends because they have what we consider to be a temporary difficulty."

Our friends at Liberate Tate have shown just how out of touch this kind of comment is. They've shown how Tate members and the rest of the public think that oil companies, like tobacco firms, shouldn't be allowed to use sponsorship as a shield to distract us from the dirty reality of their business.

When we talk about doing everything we can to stop Arctic oil drilling, that means looking at this kind of cultural campaigning as well focusing on dangerous oil rigs. The use of sponsorship to build social license is not new, but it is growing. And as it grows, we'll be there to subvert it, play with it, and eventually stop it.

Watch this space, and leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

Ben Ayliffe is head of the Arctic oil campaign at Greenpeace UK.