The theme of the new Chevron two-and-a-half minute TV ad (which can be viewed here) that will break this weekend on CBS’s 60 Minutes is “The Power of Human Energy.” The sub-themes are “We Live Here Too (an actual line)” “We employ part-time poets. (actual line)” “Our geologists shop at Whole Foods and wear Birkenstocks (implied with image)”
Corporate advertising meant to change people’s minds about how they view a corporation and brand is a treacherous exercise. At best, a great campaign can change the tenor of the public conversation about a brand (GE and BP). At worst, it merely makes the top management feel better, and it provides an applause line at the annual meeting for shareholders getting wealthy off $80-a-barrel oil.
This effort, created by independent agency McGarryBowen, New York, if nothing else, has a refreshing tone of frankness and honesty while at the same time espousing mission statement-like bromides about conservation and responsible exploration that many an environmentalist could argue with. Oil companies, make no mistake, are about two things first and last. Finding more oil and pulling it out of the ground and moving it using the cheapest possible methods, and maximizing the investments in drilling rights and refinery capacity. If the environment gets in the way of either goal, the environment pretty much loses. Why else, to cite one example, does the oil industry support a network of oil tankers mostly registered through shell corporations in Liberia, so that when accidents happen, ownership and responsibility is incredibly difficult to assign. And how many oil industry executives have we heard denounce the environmentally catastrophic practice of trying to extract oil from tar-sands.
I am not saying for a second that Chevron is a bad company. But it is a company caught up in a brand proposition larger than its own individual brand: The brand Big Oil.
There is a shattering lack of political leadership in both parties to make significant strides in reducing the addiction to oil. Talk to an elected official about whether they think there needs to be policy to force consumers to shift their energy consumption, and they say yes. Ask them if they are willing to ask consumers (voters) to do it, and they say No.
But I digress. I actually like the frankness of some of the ad copy.
“For today and tomorrow, and the foreseeable future, our lives demand oil.”
“Energy is the story of our time.”
“This is not just about oil companies. It’s about you and me.”
Then there is a line of copy I really hate. “Not corporate titans, but men and women of vision.”
Not corporate titans? It’s as if we have never met oil company CEOs. And most of the public, of course, haven’t. But for those of us who have, this line is ridiculous. Executives who make hundreds of millions of dollars are rich corporate titans. Not good or bad. But titans? Yes. And I think most gas-pumping consumers who have never met one will have a hard time swallowing this one.
The point of the campaign is clear. It’s trying to take the negative “Big” out from the phrase “Big Oil,” just as we have passed $80 a barrel, and the U.S. continues an incredibly costly occupation of Iraq, according to more than half the country and former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, because of consumers’ addiction to oil.
It is hard to imagine that this advertising, as well done as it is, will change too many minds about Big Oil. GE managed to change the conversation about its environmental reputation with a sustained ad campaign. But oil is not only wrapped up in the day’s stories about the environment, which was the case with GE, but also the daily political, Iraq occupation and foreign policy news cycle. It’s hard to imagine that even Chevron has enough money to spend on corporate ads to drown all that out.