Friday, 20 April 2007


I saw a Shell ad the other night set in Brunei that seemed to go on for an eternity. It dramatised the discovery of a way of drilling that worked like a bendy straw. Thus removing the need to have thousands of platforms to reach the oil in a picturesque location where the remaining deposits were spread out. The narrator was a long-suffering Dutch dad whose son was openly critical of his job and its environmental impact. A normal guy, an engineer, an involved dad, someone you can relate to. There is a pretty but sympathetic journalist (they wish!) who almost looks like she is going to become the love interest required by any such Hollywood style plot. The endline said it was all about "real energy".

You can view it on youtube (embedding is disabled -maybe they dont want blogs discussing it? - but it's here)

There's an even longer cinematic version: here

What to make of this?

George Monbiot is pretty clear what he thinks: they're still drilling

On the other hand the Guardian have let Shell be the lead sponsor of their climate change conference in June and James Smith the Shell chairman will speak alongside HSBC, M&S & others

Its a raging controversy in financial circles too. FTSE4Good decided to let BP & Shell be included in their ethical index. Quite a controversial decision given they excluded not only porn and tobacco, but even Tesco. Whereas ethical funds do exclude them: "Morley Fund Management - which this week became the first investor to say it would vote against companies' annual accounts unless they include an environmental report - said it preferred to judge its ethical funds against the market as a whole. Clare Brook, at Morley, said their funds invest on the basis of actual environmental performance rather than management aspirations to reduce their impact. "The reason BP and Shell produce so many reports is because they are doing so much damage." source

I'll leave the bigger csr/political issues within the oil industry to others. I want to talk about the advertising/marketing aspects.

It's artful propaganda. In creative terms it is beautifuly shot and acted. The script is a bit mawkish, but in a Hollywood way (everyone cheers when he presents the bendy straw idea). For all I know this will win creative awards. In planning terms, the ad strategy is personalising the issue. It's a corporate (rather than retail/fuels) campaign aiming to improve Shell's standing as 'a nice company staffed by people who are doing what they can'. It's cleverly put together on a number of grounds;
- its political best practise; you dont talk about 'the health service' you highlight an emotive case of a child on a waiting list...
- it's well made (looks very expensive) and involving as a mini-story
- it's saying that, 'love us or loathe us, at least we're trying'
- it acknowledges that human beings working for the company have conflicts over this stuff too
- it is exploring the creative process, the interest of being an engineer and solving problems
- it is about how they drill for oil, not pretending that it's all wind farms etc. these days

Set against that I do wonder about the premise that this is a role for advertising; it seems almost oblivious to the literacy of today's audience. It's ignoring the starting point in the audience's mind; that Shell are a 'bad guy' = you dont trust them = this ad only highlights that distrust. It may be that the political climate is different in different parts of the world? But I think you are constantly aware as you watch it that despite appearances it is not a documentary, nor even a feature film, it is a company presenting what it considers its best side. They must have researched this though; maybe there is a middle ground of people prepared to believe what they see.

I dont think companies should greenwash. Not only because it is misleading and manipulative. But because it is counterproductive in commercial terms, hardening opposition, giving opponents a target, reinforcing your negative position. Branding and advertising is the wrong tool. It selectively flatters something. That's wearing thin as an approach in any marketing eg when its a crap product pretending to be a good one (Stella, Mr Kipling, Axe). But in political fields it is downright dangerous. It's the lettuce leaf in the window; leading to the claim you are 'a vegetarian butchers'. Even if in sustainability terms its more of a complex overall issue than that (heavy industry can do more than any to reduce emissions) the way the public sees issues tends to be quite black or white.

If Shell wanted to engage people what should they do then? I guess what they are after is some protection from being the focus of all attacks, and hence being the easy the target of NGO campaigns, regulation and so on.

You know what I'd consider doing? I'd turn the tables on the motorists. "We only make the stuff" - nearly everyone watching is using it. Responsible use is the key for everyone. Reduce journeys. Share cars. Use public transport. The rising price of oil means that (in the longterm) oil companies will make more money and have more funds than anyone to invest in alternatives anyway. As oil becomes a scarce resource they will benefit from dramatically higher prices. So more responsible use is a good thing, not comercial suicide. Why shoulder the blame for a shared problem? Let he who is carless cast the first stone.

But that's still open to charges of greenwashing, as is any ad strategy. I think the more interesting directions in green marketing are about working with new business models, innovation, actually being part of the solution - beyond whatever you communicate.

In commercial terms, they need to HEDGE. Alternative fuels are part of that. But why not invest in other alternatives? Service systems, even new town planning concepts. What if Shell became the leading videophone company in the world (to make the service better & help people become adept at using it)? Or if they developed the efficient engines of the future.

Anyway, it's all quite confusing isnt it. And this is a prime example of what many think 'green marketing' as a subject is about; making so many in the marketing world cynical about the whole subject - whether they are pro or anti green actually.

What do others think?


John Grant said...

Interesting article arguing that greenwash is a good thing because it commits companies to action and invites scrutiny

(It's not entirely flattering about Shell tough)

John Grant said...

great post on green marketing, oil companies & the seinfeld dry cleaning episode :J

simon said...

Love the new blog. Forget ads, Shell should seek out solutions to the many problems they have caused such as Nigeria's Delta region, for one.

The cost of the ad and the air time used would have gone along way to help the region, as it would amount to considerably more money than they have put into the area in the last 20 years

John Grant said...

Yes its a good question, what the ad campaign costs (my guess $50 million, but depends on their media plan) and what they opportunity cost was of not spending that on reputation enhancing (or risk reducing) action

BP's carbon emissions programme in the 1990s (according to green to gold) cost $20million to execute and delivered $1.5billion in shareholder value, by for instance stopping leaks from pipes (bad for local envrionments, bad for global emissions, bad for company as it is lost product)

Charles Frith said...

Jesus. That Shell ad is the biggest pile of pants I've seen yet and as a BBC World and CNN viewer I've seen my fare share. Its clearly been through the corporate approval treadmill and has a synthetic voice ringing right through it. It's not unusual, most of the energy companies are fellating themselves with this kind of advertising but I leave them with one thought. Why can't we work on an energy model that leaves oil in the ground? We didn't create it and we sucked it dry until none was left. Shell's version of greenwashing is to suck it even more dry with a bendy oil drill - purleaase!

There are a million things that Shell could do which would rock the communications world, and the target audience. Make people sit up and notice. Instead they congratulate themselves for understanding truculent teenagers who have 'their views'. Patronising dross. That kids view will have to deal with our generations reality.

Right I've said my piece. Time to read that next chapter.