Chevron Ad Campaign Answers Critics Head-On

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As Big Oil struggles to repair its image in the wake of the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Chevron   Corp. is responding head-on to industry critics.

The company's new ads, designed to evoke anti-industry posters, feature slogans such as "Oil companies should put their profits to good use" and "It's time oil companies get behind renewable energy." Stamped in red are the words, "We agree."

The ad campaign, which will debut Monday, is a departure for an industry that usually promotes itself with generic images: frolicking children, serious scientists, splendid vistas of mountains and rivers.

"It was a conscious decision on our part to take on some of the more frequent questions that we're being asked," said Rhonda Zygocki, vice president for policy, government and public affairs at Chevron, which is based in San Ramon, Calif.

"The directness of this campaign we're hoping will at least draw attention," she said, adding that the timing of the campaign wasn't influenced by the oil spill.

But the campaign comes as the industry is trying to recover from the April 20 blowout of a well owned by BP PLC, one of the world's largest oil companies. The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. For weeks, images of the burning rig, the spewing well and oil-covered pelicans dominated television news programs and newspaper front pages.

The disaster only worsened the image of an industry that the public has consistently ranked dead last among 25 business sectors in Gallup polls, below even than the health care, airline and banking industries.

"Coming out of the Gulf spill, companies are facing an even steeper climb" to improve their public images, said Chris Gidez, a senior vice president at communications firm Hill & Knowlton and a former public-relations executive in the oil industry who isn't involved in the Chevron campaign.

BP has made a high-profile effort to defend its image with a campaign pledging to "make this right" by cleaning up the spill and compensating the victims. The ads, created by Washington public affairs firm Purple Strategies, cost the company $93 million through September, according to documents BP provided to Congress. The company declined to update the figure.

Chevron's ads, which will run in print, on television and online, will initially target Washington and San Francisco, but will eventually appear throughout the U.S. and overseas. They were created by McGarryBowen, a unit of Dentsu Holdings; the firm also developed Chevron's "Human Energy" campaign, launched in 2007.

Chevron wouldn't say how much it is spending on the new effort. The company has spent $92 million buying advertising time and space in the U.S. in the 12 months that ended in June, according to Kantar Media, an ad-tracking firm.

The new ads don't directly address Chevron's environmental record. The company is embroiled in a long-running, multi-billion-dollar lawsuit that contends the company is responsible for oil pollution in Ecuador, which Chevron denies.

Company critics also accuse Chevron of funding opposition to California's 2006 climate-change law; Chevron says it is "working constructively" with the state on the law and isn't supporting efforts to repeal it.

Environmental groups have responded to Chevron's previous attempts to improve its image with their own ads and protests. Earlier this month, broom-carrying activists in hazmat suits demonstrated outside Chevron stations in San Francisco and called on the company to "clean up" its operations.

"Chevron's rhetoric and the public image that they put forward is very different from how they're actually operating," said Maria Ramos, campaign director for the Rainforest Action Network, the environmental group that organized the protests.

Chevron has enlisted the help of outside groups to push back against such criticism. Some of the new ads are signed by non-profit groups that work with Chevron, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and Cleantech Open, an organization that promotes companies specializing in renewable energy and green technologies.

"Is this dancing with the devil? We think not," Cleantech Open executive director Rex Northen said. "We think that if we're going to make a difference we really have to bring all the parties to the table."

Wall Steet Journal
Ben Casselman
Monday, October 18, 2010

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