To say that Big Oil has had some reputation management problems would be the understatement of the decade. Pressure from environmentalist organizations, regulators—and most recently, investors—has combined to make life quite difficult for the industry that is being singled out as virtually the only culprit behind anthropogenic climate change. But now it’s fighting back.
A recent article published in Gizmodo details the Instagram foray of Shell and Phillips 66 as sponsors of influencers on the social network. Some of these sponsored posts, the author writes, are clearly advertising material. Others, however, are more difficult to recognize as such. If it was any other industry doing this, it would have been called native advertising and left alone.
But when Big Oil does it, it is clearly evil.
Carbon and particulate matter emissions from the production, processing and use of fossil fuels are unquestionably the largest single source of air pollution. So it’s no surprise that everyone is blaming Big Oil—and oil of any size, really—for the planet’s emission problems and the changing climate.
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The fact that billions of people use the products of Big Oil willingly on a daily basis, including the most radical environmentalists, remains outside the spotlight because it’s not as comfortable to admit that we are all taking part in the pollution of the planet by using fossil fuel products.
It is a special kind of treatment that Big Oil gets from the media, as the Gizmodo article shows. While the industry is acknowledged as the originator of most modern advertising techniques, it is then blamed for using these techniques for decades to mislead the public about the environmental danger inherent in their business.
What the argument omits is the fact that it is not the purpose of advertising to state objective truth, whether it’s about the environmental footprint of crude oil production or the effects of consuming large quantities of high-sugar soft drinks on a daily basis. The purpose of advertising is to sell a product, be it gasoline or Coca-Cola. Or, amid the public backlash to their business, to sell their transformation.
BP was the most vocal in its PR efforts to present itself as a company very different from the BP of the past when BP meant British Petroleum. Now, the company says the abbreviation that is its name means Beyond Petroleum, and it is positioning itself as an energy company rather than an oil and gas company. Other Big Oil majors are launching similar campaigns and are changing their names to distance themselves from what, as the Gizmodo accurately notes, is their core business.
Social media marketing appears to be an indispensable part of this quest for hearts and minds in the era of Big Oil hate. According to Gizmodo’s Molly Taft and her interviewees for the article who include the director of Climate Accountability Communication at the Climate Social Science Network at Brown University, regulators must step in and cut off Big Oil from “online greenwashing.” Perhaps the idea could be taken further: industries could be vetted before being allowed to use social networks for advertising.
It’s clear that whatever Big Oil does, even genuine attempts to clean up its act, it will be called greenwashing and condemned by climate crusaders. There is no scenario where the oil industry could do anything positive for what is now commonly called the energy revolution - except fuel it with its oil and gas, that is. A recent study from an environmental organization showed that it’s been doing just that over the past ten years, with the share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix as large now as it was in 2010.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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