BP will go down in history for a number of reasons. The company will forever be known as being responsible for the largest oil spill in US history, for leaving hundreds of people without jobs in the Gulf region, for killing an incalculable amount of wildlife, and for altering the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico for decades to come. It’s a severe understatement to say that the company’s reputation has been tainted in the last few months. BP knows this, and they are on damage control. But the frantic efforts to repair their image have of course come with some intense advertising.
While BP has published and broadcasted a variety of different advertising since April 20, one particular advertising campaign seems particularly long running and wide spread. The advertisement’s title is “Making This Right” and lists seven subjects concerning the oil spill. These include: beaches, claims, cleanup, economic investment, environmental restoration, health and safety and wildlife. As part of one large campaign, BP publishes full-page ads focusing on one of these seven categories for a period of time and then switches to another. For example, the beaches version of the advertisement includes a large color picture of people cleaning up the beaches in the Gulf, a paragraph explaining this effort and a telephone number for people to call should they see oil on the beach. The last sentence says, “We may not always be perfect, but we will make this right.”
After seeing this advertisement run practically every other day in several major newspapers, Greenpeace became curious about how much BP was paying to run these large ads so frequently. We began collecting the advertisements throughout the month of June from three major newspapers: The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post. We kept track of how many times the ad appeared and whether or not it was in color or black and white. When June ended, we began making calls to these publications to find out how much it was costing the oil giant. After getting estimates from advertising executives and looking at their advertising rate cards online, we found that BP had spent over $5.6 million in one month on advertising in three papers.
Kate Sheppard, a journalist for Mother Jones, used Greenpeace’s total as the basis for a story, which ran earlier this month. In her article, Sheppard also brought to light that BP often also has the option of choosing where their advertisements are printed in the paper, so they can easily place the large advertisements next to a story about the spill; a commonly used, deceptive advertising practice.
$5.6 million is an astounding amount, but a drop in the bucket to the third largest energy company in the world. However, its important to note that the total we calculated is only for one month and only for three papers. Additionally, we discovered that the Washington Post had a bulk rate discount, meaning that they got cut a break.
The real total that has been spent on all advertising since the disaster occurred is many more times the amount that we found. In the end, it will certainly be interesting to see how much it will take to repair a reputation with such a deep scar. However, it might be safe to say that even the largest color ads couldn’t fix what’s already been done.
Millions of people around the world are waiting for the oil to stop flowing from the Deepwater Horizon oilrig now at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. There is no denying a general consensus of horror over the entire situation. But each individual’s reaction to the situation is different.
There have been protests across the world against BP, some have donated and raised money for the clean-up, volunteers have rehabilitated animals, scientists have tested the water, journalists have covered the events surrounding it, and some have physically watched the globs of oil wash onto their beaches.
Greenpeace UK recently responded to the oil spill, by taking advantage of its close proximity to BP’s corporate headquarters in London. Last week, members scaled the building that houses the company responsible for this environmental catastrophe and hung a flag with the words “British Polluters” and an adapted version of their logo. A large, black splotch was placed over their brightly colored logo in representation of oil.
Ben Stewart, one of the Greenpeace activists that scaled the building, was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying; “It takes some cheek to go use a sunflower logo when your business is about dirty oil.”
The green and yellow sunburst was created as part of a marketing campaign in 2000 to re-brand its company as being “green.” During the same time, the company made its slogan “Beyond Petroleum.” The company is an award-winning “greenwasher.” Read more about their long history here.
The flag raising is part of Greenpeace UK’s Tar Sands Campaign against BP. Tar Sands, or oil sands, are a naturally occurring mixture of sand, water, and a very dense form of petroleum known as Bitumen. A significant amount of the material exists in Alberta Canada. According to a report from IHS Cambridge Energy Resource Associates, these reserves in particular have been pinpointed to become the largest source of crude oil imports in 2010. Exxon, Shell and BP are all sourcing from this rich region.
However, there are serious environmental consequences of sourcing petroleum from the Tar Sands. For instance, significant parts of the Boreal Forest are being cut to make room for the development; the area is the fastest growing origin of greenhouse gases in Canada, and extraction of the petroleum causes both air and water pollution.
In addition to the action that took place at the BP headquarters, Greenpeace UK is also holding a design competition as part of their Tar Sands campaign to design a logo that better fits who the company really is and the kinds of things it stands for.
Individuals can enter their new logo into the “design professionals, public, or under 18” division. An entry can be painted, colored, sketched, designed in Photoshop or created in any other innovative way. The winner of the competition will be used as the face of Greenpeace UK’s Tar Sands campaign.
See here for some of the creations entered so far.
This event, as well as the action on the part of Greenpeace UK yesterday, is both an effort to protest the environmental degradation that they are accountable for and to expose the greenwashing campaign that originally formed their misleading image.
No matter how you frame oil: in a fancy television commercial or newspaper ad featuring different shades of green, a popular song, or a logo of the sun, it will still always be oil. This is the truth no matter how well crafted a marketing spin really is. It isn’t exactly easy to put on green-tinted glasses and see oil in a different way. However, it’s what BP has been trying to do for years.
Ironically however, even oil companies have picked up on society’s drive for the words “eco-friendly,” and the dirtiest of companies are attempting to benefit from it. In the greenwashing game, profit often comes before any reputation of honesty or respect for the true meaning of “green.” Today, BP plays the game with a lot of guts.
For some time, Greenpeace has been covering BP’s greenwashing schemes. However, now that they are responsible for what could become the largest oil spill in U.S. history, we felt that recapping on their long history of environmental ploys is vital. Perhaps not all of BP’s deception has been as serious as their gross underestimate of how much oil is truly pouring from their rig. However, their smaller duplicities, the ones that haven’t left as physical or destructive of footprints, have simply served as a foundation for the much larger ones.
The goal to be painted green: The truth behind the marketing
Last year, Greenpeace awarded the BP the first “Emerald Paintbrush” award for greenwashing. Greenpeace in the UK attempted to present the company with a trophy: a paintbrush covered in green paint.
But BP wasn’t exactly cordial when accepting. See this video of Greenpeace UK attempting to deliver the award.
The award was granted to the company in recognition of its 2008 multimillion dollar marketing campaign, boldly stating a pledge to alternative energy. But the clever catchphrases, such as “from the earth to the sun and everything in between” and “the best way out of the energy fix is an energy mix,” which define their ‘green’ advertising, are hardly more than statements created from a well-paid public relations flack.
Greenpeace UK calculated information from company documents and found that the company’s investments do not match their public relations statements. BP invested 93 percent of investments into oil and gas in comparison to 2.79 percent on biofuel and 1.39 percent on solar initiatives. The ratio speaks for itself. It demonstrates (in actual numbers), the misleading nature of BP’s marketing claims of dedication toward alternative energy.
But the desire to be branded as ‘green’ has been a decade long goal for BP. In 2000, the company launched its $200 million advertising campaign to highlight a more environmental side. Their popular idiom “Beyond Petroleum” was also developed at this time.
In 2001, BP received a “Campaign of the Year Award” from PRWeek in the category of “product brand development” for that campaign, according to Source Watch.
This photo and the one above were recently taken by Greenpeace photographers at the scene of the oil spill along the Louisiana coast. Here, that same ‘Beyond Petroleum’ catchphrase simply stands as an ironic and perverse indication that oil is the true focus of this company.
But should there be any surprise?
Since the branding began in 2000, the company has been absolving itself of any accountability to its marketing.
For example, in 2009 BP further affirmed that it was never truly committed to alternative energy when that division of the company in London was shut down. Vivienne Cox, the director of solar and wind power for the company resigned at the same time. Shortly before the entire division was cut, BP’s solar projects in both Spain and the United States were ended, cutting hundreds of jobs.
The same time last year BBC reported that BP had decided to shift its priorities from being "green" to being "responsible," backing away from their environmentally friendly commitment.
"The new brand value, 'Responsible', encompasses BP's original aspirations towards the environment, in addition to other key areas such as safety and social welfare," said spokesman for the company, David Nicholas, in a April 2009 BBC story. "Our aspirations remain absolutely unchanged: no accidents, no harm to people and no damage to the environment."
A history of harm past deceptive advertising
No accidents? No harm to people, or damage to the environment? Considering the current situation, it might be an incredible underestimate to say that they haven’t exactly met their “aspirations”. While society watches as BP oil floats in a thick layer on the top of the Gulf waters destroying natural habitats and ecosystems as well as hurting the seafood industry, fisherman and locals along the coast, the quote is a biting incongruity.
However, it should be well known that the most recent oil spill is not the first time that BP has not kept its aspirations to be safe or responsible. It’s not just misleading advertising and marketing strategies related to alternative energy that define the company’s historical relationship to the environment. In fact, there have been a number of more detrimental actions than just deceptive branding.
In 2005, an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City injured 170 people, killing 15. The company faced approximately $87 million in fines for safety hazards at the refinery including settling with the families of the victims of the explosion for $1.6 billion. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA, BP was charged with “willful”safety violations, meaning a company was aware of the hazards and violations.
A year after Texas City, in 2006, BP became responsible for the largest spill on the North Slope in Alaska. A corroded pipeline in Prudhoe Bay dumped 200,000 gallons of oil over the course of 5 days. It was estimated to have covered two acres. Months later, the pipeline leaked 1,000 gallons again.
The Center for Public Integrity also recently found that in total, BP was responsible for 97 percent of all violations found in the past three years.
Considering these instances, there is no wonder or surprise in the fact that safety is being considered as a factor in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. A recent investigation by Representative Henry Waxman found that the rig’s “blowout preventer” had a leak in the hydraulic system and that it had failed a pressure test hours before the explosion. This finding was exacerbated when a whistleblower in the industry said that BP was aware of safety issues related to the Atlantis, another deepwater rig in the Gulf.
Despite the significant amount of evidence proving that they had a history of safety violations, serious irony occurred on the same day of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Also on April 20, BP flew officials onto the rig to celebrate its safety record. The circumstances almost seem too strange to be real: something that would happen in a comedic cartoon of the event.
While it’s not exactly a secret that many companies have piggy backed on the swelling wave of interest in the term ‘green,’ it’s slightly ironic that BP, with this kind of history would have the fortitude to ever consider themselves a truly environmentally friendly company.
Group vice president for marketing for BP, Anna Catalano, once told the New York Times that BP is "the company that goes beyond what you expect from an oil company -- frank, open, honest and unapologetic."
Given the information above and the current oil spill, it’s hard to agree that the first three of the above adjectives accurately describe this company. Its clear that one of these applies.
We've been skeptical of BP's green marketing claims all along, but reports out of London today confirm that BP's new motto should be "Back to Petroleum".
The Guardian reports:
BP has shut down its alternative energy headquarters in London, accepted the resignation of its clean energy boss and imposed budget cuts...
....BP Alternative Energy was given its own headquarters in County Hall opposite the Houses of Parliament two years ago and its managing director, Vivienne Cox, oversaw a small division of 80 staff concentrating on wind and solar power. But [Cox] – BP's most senior female executive, who previously ran renewables as part of a larger gas and power division now dismantled by Hayward – is standing down tomorrow.
This comes alongside huge cuts in the alternative energy budget – from $1.4bn (£850m) last year to between $500m and $1bn this year, although spending is still roughly in line with original plans to invest $8bn by 2015.
Earlier this year the company shut down solar operations in the US and Spain.
Meanwhile, BP is still moving into more destructive oil operations, such as Canada's tar sands.
Used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.