Polluting your mind


December 23, 2009

Anne Mulkern wrote an interesting article in today’s New York Times/Greenwire about Big Oil’s efforts to greenwash their dirty image with misleading advertisements.  As the article details, giant oil companies like BP, Shell, Exxonmobil, and their industry trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, are spending millions to convince Americans and policymakers that they are investing in clean energy, even though in reality, “…for all three companies, the alternative energy investments still are a small part of their overall business. BP, for example, puts $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion a year into alternative energy projects. That’s about 1 percent of the company’s total $20 billion investment this year in future business prospects.”

Last week, we looked at some of Shell’s ads, some of which were so misleading that they were forced to stop using them in the UK.

In Mulkern’s article, Chevron attempts to explain their PR push:

Chevron’s ads are aimed at getting people to think about conservation while also expanding their view of the company, said Helen Clark, Chevron’s manager of corporate marketing.

“Oil and gas is a majority of our business, but there’s a lot else we do that’s important,” Clark said.

“We want people to see past the rhetoric and past the view of ‘Big Oil,'” she added. “We want to make sure it’s showing all sides of the corporation.”

All sides of the corporation? OK, let’s check out some sides that you might not hear about on a giant billboard or full page ad in the Washington Post.  How about the side that’s been accused of extortion on Capitol Hill for their lobbying efforts to avoid responsibility for dumping billions of gallons of toxic wastewater in the Amazon? Or the side that just settled a lawsuit requiring them to cough up millions of dollars for unpaid lease royalties to state, federal and American Indian governments? 

No amount of focus group-tested advertising is going to fool the people living nearby Chevron’s massive polluting refinery in San Ramon, California, hundreds of whom marched on the facility this summer:

But maybe that’s not the point.  As marketing expert Bob Kenney points out in Mulkern’s article, it’s important to look at just who Big Oil is trying to fool:

Many of the ads have run in Washington, D.C. Those are less about reaching customers and more about reaching Congress,

“It’s concerned with contributing information in the public debate at a governmental level,” Kenney said. “It may look like a public campaign sometimes, but sometimes it’s not.”

As Big Oil pollutes local communities from the Bay Area to the Amazon, their massive PR and lobbying efforts pollute the understanding of what they are doing to this planet, and they’re especially focused on policymakers here in Washington DC. You can find Chevron’s ads all over our nation’s capitol, at bus stops, on the sides of buildings and in the newspapers and magazines read by our legislators and their staff.

In fact, there’s a Chevron banner ad right on Mulkern’s article itself, inviting us to “Join the Discussion” about the UN Climate summit in Copenhagen:


As the US Senate takes up energy and climate legislation, we’ll be watching what kind of “discussion” polluter lobbyists are really interested in.


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