There are a plethora of ads put forth by oil companies to promote the “social good” they are doing. As a writer on environmental issues, I happen to be aware of the flip side of the story. So while British Petroleum pushes their “Voices from the Gulf” tourism travelogues about how great it is to visit the southern states afflicted by their oil spill, the fact that I think about is that the oil spill was the most significant to date in American history, with between 17 and 39 million gallons spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. Ads like these often get debunked, but the damage lives on.
So it was with interest that I looked into the story about three organizations that took a page from the PR books of the oil companies. They created a tongue-in-cheek ad of their own. It’s called “Exxon Hates Your Children.” The ad (below) is poised to become the focal point of a conversation that is much larger than solely environmental issues. It’s about who gets to put their message out to the public.
The groups behind the ad are OilChange International, The Other 98%, and Environmental Action. I was able to speak to the leaders of each to discuss the genesis of the ad, and the successful efforts made by ExxonMobil to have it pulled from what would have been a coveted time slot.
David Turnbull, Campaigns Director at OilChange International, walked me through the original goals for the Public Service Announcement. Launched at the end of 2012, the ad was designed to “target the subsidies for fossil fuels [oil, coal, and natural gas], which all emit carbon dioxide when they are burned—thereby adding to global warming.” Turnbull told me, “We wanted to raise the noise about what these companies are doing.” The ad was previewed by their lawyers, who “vetted it for all legalities,” confirming that it was acceptable to air. It was rolled out in the New York City, Washington, D.C., and Denver markets on MSNBC, to what they gauged as a “target sympathetic audience.” Turnbull also mentioned that it was a direct pushback to the sponsored placements of the American Petroleum Institute.
The next step was to go for a venue that Turnbull called “the belly of the beast.” That was FoxNews in Houston, Texas. It was a time slot where there would be plenty of eyeballs—the two hour lead in and two hour follow up to the State of the Union address on February 12.
Turnbull related, “It was all set to air.” Then during the late afternoon hours, Comcast, the cable provider, got an e-mail from ExxonMobil. It was a cease and desist letter from their legal team claiming that the ad was “defamatory.” They were up against what Turnbull called the use of ExxonMobil’s money and political clout to “throw its weight around.” He said categorically, “It’s about the future of our children. Our government is giving money to companies that are harming the environment.”
I mentioned the constant drum beat for the argument that potential jobs were at stake, especially with the Keystone XL Pipeline debate heating up. Turnbull replied, “Renewable energy equals jobs. The idea that we have to ruin our children’s future to create jobs is ludicrous.”
Drew Hudson, the Executive Director of Environmental Action, founded in 1970, saw the ad and “jumped on the bandwagon” to help crowdsource the advertising fees. He said, “We wanted to put out the premise that “there is no way to be an ethical oil company.” He continued, “The company can only make a profit by destroying the planet.” Hudson acknowledged that the ad was ”intended to be disarming.” The reasoning is that it’s “trying to get people to rethink their assumptions.” He also agreed that a false dichotomy had been set up pitting the environment against jobs. “We have to stop where we are and acknowledge the problem.”
Co-founder and Executive Director of The Other 98%, John Sellers, was direct about his thoughts on ExxonMobil. He said dryly, “They have, more or less, run of the planet. Exxon has the mindset that they run the show. We struck a nerve.” Sellers noted, “ExxonMobil is full of good people, but the company—who we have given personhood to—hates children and the future of the planet.”
Sellers wants to see the ad back on the air, and talked about the options for pressuring the oil company to stop censoring the PSA. Taking legal action is on the table. “Freedom of speech cannot be curtailed,” he said.
Although Sellers regrets the “lost opportunity” of an airing the night of the State of the Union—where climate change was addressed—he is hardly deterred.
“We’re going to make another ‘ExxonMobil Hates Your Children’ commercial,” he told me. “We’re in it for the long haul.”
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Photo: Exxon Hates Your Children