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.
But who needs to actually make great environmental strides when a well-designed new look can do it for you? Shooting on video instead of film says “authentic”; the ostentatiously humble lowercase b and p say “not imperialistic”; highlighted words surrounded by clean white space say, “We focus on what’s important”; the youngish people on the street say “future”; the suspenseful but metronomic music says, “Be patient, we’ll get there.” And the green and yellow logo—well, is it the sun, suggesting solar energy, or is it a Teletubby flower, suggesting sheer innocence?
This next spot, also from 2006, pushes natural gas, but by asking, “What would you ask an oil company?” it’s really pushing the idea that BP is listening: They want to know what I think. (And catch this post-spill parody.)
All that breezy, lowercase nonchalance predisposed me toward BP. Big Oil in general was not to be trusted, I knew that much, but I really didn’t question that BP at least wanted to be a “good steward of the earth,” as corporate flacks like to say. In much the same way that I don’t question too hard when I’m shopping and see the word “green” on a cleaning product or “natural” on processed food. I know that these words are legally, technically meaningless, but I’m in a hurry and I almost appreciate the corporations’ token effort. It means they’re aware that green is important, which means, I tell myself, they wouldn’t completely make things up. It’s a start… if you’re a fool for green-washing like me.
Of course, my ad-encouraged suspension of disbelief in BP also depended on remaining ignorant. I didn’t know, until recently, that in the last three years BP has had far more OSHA violations than any other oil company: some 760 "egregious, willful" safety violations, while Citgo, for instance, had two, and Exxon (Exxon!?) had one. And my mind was elsewhere in 2005 when a BP refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas, killed fifteen people and injured 180, and was later blamed on BP’s corner-cutting profit enhancement.
Anyway, I had space in my overloaded consumer brain for only one villainous oil company and, likemost Americans, I figured Exxon was it. Put its XX next to BP’s sunny green thing and you don’t really need a third X to know who’s the bad guy. This isn’t to excuse any of the other oil companies for their misdeeds. But it does point to my—and our—tendency to funnel life’s nonstop gush of information into either the hero or the villain pipe. Relief pipes to deal with continuing pressure are coming any day now, we tell ourselves.
The awful truth is that none of us really wants to wake up every day to this story about how our need to drive to a 7/11 for Twinkies in the middle of the night has killed everything in the Gulf of Mexico. Those powerful Beyond Petroleum ads are emblematic of how persuasive corporate advertising works: a little denial, a little magical thinking, perhaps a dose of “authentic” people or heart-stopping visuals. And before you know it, you’ve tripped into a pleasant world where, after the corporation has done its best to manufacture doubt, you finish the job for them. The biggest lies you hear are usually the ones you tell yourself.