activism climate change energy

Why are the oil companies on a PR assault?

On my commute this week, I couldn’t help but notice that in the streets I walk through in London on my way to the office, there are no fewer than five billboards for four different fossil fuel companies.

  • Shell have one of their much parodied ‘let’s go’ ads, with a picture of a girl reading a book in bed. ‘Let’s keep the lights on when she’s your age’ it says.
  • Total’s ad claims they have ‘100,000 people committed to better energy’. There’s a TV advert along these lines that I’ve seen online too, full of happy Total workers, scientists pointing earnestly, and poor Africans.
  • Esso have two billboards near me, including a picture of a teacher in a classroom who they say “is energy”. Unless Esso are training teachers now, that’s a stupid ad.
  • SSE have an ad boasting that they’ve frozen their prices, but you have to see the TV ad to understand why it has a random monkey in the background. “It’s easy to forget, energy fills our lives with wonderful things” goes the ad voiceover, as an orangutan wanders around a city at night and marvels at the light bulbs, and then climbs back into a tree to cuddle its baby.

shell-adAll these billboards have appeared in the last couple of weeks, and they’re all big campaigns with a TV spend. All the campaigns feature children or childhood in some way. All of them are positive, uplifting messages about progressive energy companies that are on our side and guiding us into a better, happier future.

I’m not going to pick apart the messaging. It’s not exactly subtle. What it got me thinking is why have they all appeared at the same time? Something has prompted them all to hurry out and spend some PR money – so what’s got them scared? And whatever that thing is, how can I support it?

If I were to take a guess, I’d say it’s the advance of the Fossil Free campaign. This, as we’ve covered before, is the campaign from 350.org to encourage divestment from fossil fuel companies. Since governments and oil companies aren’t changing, it goes after the money. After some successes in the US last year, it arrived in Britain, targeting universities, churches and charitable trusts.

In the summer this year, Oxford declared itself the first city in Britain to go fossil free, after the council passed a motion to withdraw their investments. The Bright Now campaign has got churches talking about their investments, and Divest London got their first actions underway in September. Last week Glasgow became the first university in the UK to announce they were divesting, re-allocating £18 million of investments in fossil fuels.

This is all very small so far, but it’s growing, and it’s clearly got the oil companies’ attention. Just last week, Exxon Mobil (Esso in the UK) posted this attack on the divestment movement on their website, suggesting it was holding back energy access in Africa – the poor in Africa are always on the minds of Esso shareholders, of course.

So a word to the divestment campaigners – they’re on to you, and they’re scared. Keep up the good work! And to the rest of us, is anyone pressing your uni, school, or local council to divest? Join in.

7 comments

  1. Hi Jeremy Do you not think that the fossil fuel companies see their gravy train diminishing and its a kind of fire sale to get as much fossil fuels sold before people wake up to the danger we are in and act on it?? I read the GreenWash book recently and banks etc are still heavily investing their capital into the fossil fuels.

    M Green

    1. Perhaps, though I’m not sure their gravy train is diminishing. As you say, banks and governments are still throwing money at them. They know they have a long future ahead of them, unfortunately. I think this is more likely to be a PR thing, fending off some critical press and trying to get ahead of calls for divestment.

  2. This New York Times guest editorial from 2006! BP Beyond Propaganda.
    From the disappointed ad writer himself… Don’t expect energy companies to change without the success of the 350.org divestment campaign.

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