In its prime, oil company advertising produced some classic campaigns:
Remember Dino the Sinclair dinosaur?
Remember the Texaco fire chief, Phillips 66 and Exxon?
“You can trust your car to the man who wears the star.”
“Put a tiger in your tank!”
Now oil company ads are more likely to feature a young girl holding flowers than a furry animal holding a gas nozzle.
Indeed, we’ve come a long way, baby…
Wrapped in the Web
Many of the industry’s current ad campaigns can be accessed online.
For example, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil post their ad campaigns for public access.
In addition, several companies carry or sponsor Web sites as part of their ongoing communications programs.
Most of the industry’s Web page advocacy follows an informational and educational line, in a very low-key way.
On the home page of www.willyoujoinus.com, the tagline – “To deliver the world’s energy, we need yours first” – appears in the upper left-hand corner. Recently, a link to a discussion on biofuels ran below that.
Another link allowed the reader to “Play Energyville,” an online game built around energy choices for a city.
Tucked away in the lower right-hand corner is the logo of the site’s sponsor, Chevron.
Go to the Web page of The Energy Debate and you’ll see the Shell Oil logo and a link to The Economist magazine online.
Visitors can register to read and post comments. A recent debate topic asked, “Can coal clean up its act?”
The bright home page of Energy Tomorrow lists an energy primer called “Oil and Natural Gas 101” and a quick guide to energy issues.
Other content includes an assessment of proposed energy legislation and an Energy IQ quiz.
Scroll to the bottom of the page and you’ll find the copyright notice of the site’s owner, the American Petroleum Institute.
They Want to Know
Erin Thomson, API director of communications, said the public began calling in numerous questions about the industry after a series of hurricanes struck the Gulf of Mexico.
“We started stepping up our advertising right after that, because there was this huge need for information,” she said.
API developed an educational advocacy campaign that includes the Energy Tomorrow Web site along with TV, radio and print advertisements.
Money for the multiyear campaign comes from the API ad/promotion budget, according to Thomson.
Early in 2007, API introduced the new Web site features, which include a radio player for short audios.
“We’ve done interviews with people on such topics as energy supply, hurricane preparedness and energy legislation,” she said.
“We have podcasts on there. We’ve had blogger events on there.
“The Energy IQ is another interesting survey we did last summer,” she added. “It’s a quiz you can take testing yourself about your knowledge of the industry.”
In addition to offering the quiz, the site reports on earlier results – including the percentage of test-takers who answered questions correctly.
For instance, only 7 percent knew that the industry has invested $75 billion-$100 billion in emerging energy technologies.
If you want a cheat: The percentage of potential offshore exploration sites in the United States restricted by the U.S. government is 85 percent.
Ads in the campaign can be reviewed and include both print and TV video.
Print ads in the campaign have run for about a year, primarily in magazines and the national press.
“We’ve run in publications all over the country. Inside the Beltway, we’ve run in the (Washington) Post, National Journal, CQ (Congressional Quarterly)” and also in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, she said.
We’re (Gulp) No. 1?
While the API ad campaign and Web site do include statements on energy legislation, they largely focus on facts, data and information about the industry.
There’s very little image-polishing or apple-polishing, although the information presented is designed to show the industry in the best possible light.
“It’s more about education,” Thomson noted. “When you look at our Blue Sky TV ad, you can see we’re trying to let people know about this new fuel that’s coming online. It’s very informational.”
But so far the ads have generated more public response for their flash than their substance. Thomson said API’s TV ad featuring the look, style and music of the 1970s has drawn the most interest.
Other efforts in the campaign include a traveling petroleum technology exhibit – “I would say geared toward high school and above,” she said – and a speakers series.
“What we hear from people inside the industry is that they’re really glad we are out there talking to people,” Thomson said.
U.S. Sen. John McCain once remarked that the oil industry has worse PR than anybody except Satanic cults.
Sadly, that was before cults became more popular and the price of oil soared above $90 a barrel. The Satan worshipers probably have pulled ahead.
John Carroll is a professor of mass communication at Boston University and a commentator for WGBH-TV in Boston. He said the industry faces a difficult task in improving its image.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Carroll said. “One of the ways advertising works is not changing people’s minds overnight, but shifting people’s image of the industry over time.
“Regardless of what people think of (oil companies), or what public opinion is, they can still make progress over time,” he added.
Higher oil and fuel prices and increased industry profits make the job even harder, Carroll noted.
“Some people think, ‘Not only are they damaging the environment, they’re gouging us while they’re doing it,’” he said.
Beating the Blame Game
The industry also tries to address multiple publics on multiple issues.
Advertisements and commercials sometimes have to carry out several purposes at once.
“I think they’re finding themselves in situations on a number of fronts right now,” Carroll observed. “But the one they are finding themselves in most now is in global warming.”
He said people look at Big Oil as a culprit in global warming, but fail to consider the role of their own activities.
“It’s easier to lay the blame off on the energy companies,” he said.
During the past decade, the oil industry’s approach to self-promotion has changed broadly. Companies even went through some tumult as a new kind of image advertising emerged.
In 1997, Shell began an integrated approach to corporate advertising, coordinating its brand promotion on a companywide and worldwide scale.
It formed a global brand and communication team, hired a principal ad agency and produced a multinational commercial.
The former British Petroleum became BP Amoco in 1998, then simply BP two years later when it adopted the slogan Beyond Petroleum.
Unocal 76 built a long-running relationship with NASCAR as the official fuel of the racing circuit. But newly formed ConocoPhillips dropped the sponsorship in 2003 after taking over the Unocal brand, citing a change in marketing direction.
It’s Not Easy Being Green
As environmental issues emerged and provoked public concern in the 1990s, the industry shifted to greener ads. Many of them promoted efforts to protect the world’s ecology.
That led to charges of “greenwashing” from industry critics, who said the ads often misrepresented or distorted the effects of petroleum development.
By 2005, oil companies faced a new challenge: growing public anger over sharply rising oil and gasoline prices.
Oil companies responded in several ways. As an initial move, top company executives became more available for public speeches and appearances. CEOs started to show up on morning television programs not usually known for news content, reflecting the level of public interest in fuel cost and availability.
Industry ad strategy shifted again, with a new aim of educating the public, defending corporate profits and presenting a more earnest and gentle, girl-with-flowers image.
Promoting investments in wind power, biofuels and other alternative energy sources became very important.
Companies also began to address the global warming/greenhouse gas issue.
BP included a “How big is your carbon footprint” calculator and its carbon footprint TV ad on its Web site.
Accentuate the Positive
One surprising result of the new approach has seen the industry produce entertainment-quality videos – centered on individuals – that are much longer than the usual 30-second or 60-second TV spots.
Shell featured one of its engineers developing new drilling technology in a nine-minute, 14-second film titled “Eureka.”
Part company promotion and part short biopic, the film also served as the basis of standalone TV commercials for Shell. The company even distributed a full-length version on DVD with several popular magazines.
Last year, Chevron debuted a 2.5- minute commercial built around its current campaign theme, “The Power of Human Energy.”
Chevron took the unusual step of buying out blocks of airtime to show the ad in its entirety.
In part, the commercial deals with the world’s continued need for oil and the industry’s ability to keep supplying that oil.
“This is Chevron’s challenge each day, because for today and tomorrow and the foreseeable future, lives demand oil,” it says, “but what’s also true is that we can provide it more intelligently, more efficiently, more respectfully.”
“This is a giant diversion machine that Chevron has produced here,” Carroll said of the commercial. “These ads are longterm, incremental.
“They don’t change public images of companies immediately. What they do is slowly erode the negative image and replace it with a positive one,” he added.
The video ends:
“Tell us it can’t be done, then watch as we tap the greatest source of energy in the world: Ourselves.
“This is the power of human energy.”
Chevron continued its “Power of Human Energy” theme in a series of six print ads. Each ad features a simple observation about energy, followed by Chevron’s response.
A headline on ConocoPhillips print ads reads “Tomorrow begins today,” leveraging on the company slogan, “Energy for Tomorrow.” The ads promote the company’s involvement in biofuels research and development of alternate energy.
Typical copy: “We’re improving environmental performance and stretching traditional fuel supplies by using energy more efficiently. So we can pass on what matters ... to the ones who matter most.”
One ad in the series features a vertical, half-page photo of a young girl – with a container of flowers.