No wonder geoscientists are so eager to work for major oil companies – it’s their first big step into show business.
OK, not really.
But you see a surprising number of oil company leaders and employees in national TV commercials these days.
It’s almost impossible, for example, to NOT see an ad on TV or print sources featuring AAPG member T. Boone Pickens discussing his energy initiative. But he’s not alone.
In its television ad campaigns in the United States and Europe, ExxonMobil is featuring a dozen or so company scientists, including AAPG members Erik Oswald and Kim Bates.
Oswald is Middle East area manager for ExxonMobil Exploration Co. in Houston, and he’s featured in two TV commercials that address the science of exploration and production, including one discussing the company’s Remote Reservoir Resistivity Mapping (R3M) technology.
Oswald said a commercial describing the scientific challenges of the energy industry was much better – and more effective – than one trying to deliver a company statement or some political message.
“I think that’s a very good strategy, that these commercials show what we do day-to-day is work on these specific technologies to try to make the world a little better,” he explained.
Bates, ExxonMobil’s area manager for Nigeria in Houston, also appreciated the approach of using real people to discuss practical science in the commercials.
“What’s fun about this is that you have people who understand the business, who understand the challenges,” she said.
She enjoyed the chance to “give people an idea of the complexity of the energy industry – because the energy challenge is for all of us.”
Bates made it clear that she didn’t have any problem learning her lines.
There weren’t any.
“One thing people should understand is that there was no script,” she said. “That was absolutely the case.”
Something to Talk About
The process of making the commercials began with an invitation to participate and a suggested list of topics, according to Bates.
“I got asked if I would come in and do a test for it. You want to make sure that people come across well, just to be sure they project and they communicate,” she said.
“Basically, the process was just to talk,” she added.
Oswald described his role in the commercials as looking into the camera and talking. The director’s face appeared in the lens and the participants described their work to him.
“You have this conversation with him for an hour and a half to an hour. It’s a lot like talking to someone at a dinner party,” Oswald explained.
“He asked normal, tough questions people usually ask us about the oil and gas industry,” he said.
Oswald has watched all the commercials on ExxonMobil’s Web site and he likes their directness.
“For me they come across as very sincere, and I think that’s because they’re not scripted,” he said.
ExxonMobil hired a professional director and crew to shoot the commercials earlier this year, according to Oswald. In his case, going in front of the camera involved only a little makeup to cut the glare from lights, and no hairdressing.
But, yes, there was wardrobe.
If you’ve seen the ExxonMobil commercials, you might have noticed that these people are suspiciously well dressed for working scientists.
“They had a lot of clothes, and I think they dressed everyone up. I sort of laugh because half the stuff I had on was mine and half was theirs,” Oswald recalled.
“That’s their job, though. These people were working at a detail level in clothes that I’ve never even thought about,” he said.
In general, the provided clothes were more expensive and stylish than the typical scientist would buy, Oswald said.
And, no, the ExxonMobil participants didn’t get to keep those clothes.
Keeping It Simple
Bates described the filming process as something definitely beyond her daily experience.
“It’s not necessarily comfortable. You’re standing up, the lights are shining on you, there’s equipment around you,” she said.
Then there was the challenge of deciding what to say and how to say it.
“I think what we are trying to do is a very, very daunting task, because it’s such a complex industry,” Oswald noted.
“You realize how impossible it is to communicate the complexity of the industry to the general public, especially in short sound bites,” he said.
Also, participants had to communicate using words and concepts the general public would understand.
Bates said she tried to use the same level of explanation she has used in communicating with her teen-age daughter.
“You have the opportunity to use words that connect. I used the same words that I use to talk to my children,” she said.
In one of ExxonMobil’s 60-second commercials, Bates and two company engineers talk about the importance of math and science education.
That commercial has drawn especially favorable comments and it complements the company’s National Math and Science Initiative.
Bates said education was not on her list of suggested discussion topics, but it came up during filming.
“We were on a break and the man who was producing it and I just happened to start talking,” she recalled.
“I mentioned that I had a concern,” she said. “Fewer and fewer kids are willing to study math and science, and that’s a problem for the country.”
Start Spreading the News
Oswald and Bates reacted in a similar way when they saw their TV commercials for the first time: They thought it was unusual for ExxonMobil to advertise that way.
“I was surprised. It’s a little sobering,” Bates said.
”Exxon has been sort of a quiet company. It was just not our style to be out there talking about ourselves,” she added.
“We’ve been silent for so long,” Oswald said, noting this is the first major TV campaign for Exxon in decades.
“The problem is, if you don’t say anything you’re defined by what other people say about you,” he observed.
When Oswald arrived for the filming, he knew he’d be discussing R3M technology.
“At the time I was a manager at the research lab so it was in the day-to-day conversation. It wasn’t anything I had to study for,” he said.
Research brought him into the oil and gas business. Oswald said he studied geology at the University of Washington and had absolutely no intention of going to work for an oil company.
But as a graduate student he took a summer internship with Exxon. The similarity between academia and corporate research appealed to him.
“The path for me was through the science,” he said.
Bates said she got into the industry in 1982 after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin because “oil companies were hiring.”
“I enjoyed it because geology is a discipline,” she said. “It’s solving puzzles, and you’re never sure if you’ve got the answer exactly right,” she said.
The Whole World’s Watching
Doing the filming for the commercials was “relatively painless,” Oswald said.
Then he discovered that the price of fame is – well, it turns out to be fame.
“The part that was a little stranger was when they put these things on TV. Then you start to get all sorts of people contacting you,” he said.
Oswald has gotten e-mails and phone calls “from the whole span of humanity – from people in Hollywood who want to know where the music came from to people who say ‘I really like your suit.’ to people who are really interested in the technology.”
For the record, the music was all original and composed specifically for the commercials, Oswald said.
“I’m up to maybe 500 contacts I’ve had from the commercial. I’d say a quarter of them are from people I knew, and that’s the fun part,” he said.
Less fun was the caller who demanded information and used language that was “even a little bit threatening,” Oswald said.
“I got that call on the very first day that the very first ad ran. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?’” he recalled.
ExxonMobil staff provided the information, the caller never called again, and Oswald said that was the only negative comment he’s received so far.
Bates looks at the company’s TV ads with a feeling of accomplishment.
“I’m proud of what they’ve done. I’m proud of the way they presented us,” she said.
When the commercials were released publicly, Oswald was able to make an objective assessment of his performance.
“I can tell you I’m definitely not going to quit my day job,” he said.
What did Oswald think the very first time he saw himself on national TV in a national commercial?
“We don’t watch TV at my house,” he said.