Oh, it’s easy to be cynical about BP’s ad attempt to clean up its image. Now that we’ve gone through nearly two months of the worst environmental disaster in US history, we can recite the lies that keep lapping up on shore (1,000 barrels a day; no, 5,000; uh, sorry, chap, make that 40,000). We sniff out the word “legitimate” in BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “we will honor all legitimate claims” as a legalistic escape hatch. We are galled that BP has decided to spend $50 million on advertising—so daringly close to its low, lobbyist-set $75 million liability cap. And we get that the high-resolution furrows on Tony’s forehead mean “Message: I care,” just as we understand that the hi-res video of the gushing wellhead (footage BP released only under pressure) sends the message “We’re screwed.”
Yes, the ad—only the first of more to come–is awful. (And it’s made by none other than frequent Hardball guest and Democratic strategist Steve McMahon and his partner in crisis PR, CNN pundit and GOP adman Alex Castellanos; their Purple Strategies consultancy also shills for the US Chamber of Commerce, which is fighting Congressional efforts to raise BP’s liability limit.) And it’s spawned parodies, all richly deserved, like this one.
But as cynical as we may now be about BP’s “we care” spot, it’s important to remember that for years BP advertising had millions of people across the world convinced that it was the greenest, the most enlightened of the energy companies. The ads had me going for a decade. In 2000, BP spent $200 million to rebrand itself from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum, from oleaginous ocean-killer to dolphin-dating dreamboat. Its stable of fresh, understated and charming commercials—which ran right up until the Deepwater explosion–created so much good will that even now it stays with me like a thin layer of grease that I can’t quite wash off.
Yep, it’s a start. But, in fact, BP never passed start. It didn’t get much beyond admitting that there is climate change—a smart PR move itself, helping the company to stand out from its competitors (who remain in denial) and diverting attention from late-‘90s charges of human rights violations in Colombia.