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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Big Oil, Good PR?

Air Date: Week of

At two and a half minutes in length and a cost of tens of millions of dollars, Chevron’s new television spot aims to show the company’s human face and good intentions. Boston University Communications Professor John Carroll listens to the ad with host Steve Curwood about talks about big oil’s big push to look green.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. With high gas prices and high oil profits, it’s no wonder the big oil companies top the list of firms Americans love to hate. So, Chevron is the latest corporation to mount a charm offensive.


VOICEOVER: This isn’t just about oil companies. This is about you and me and the undeniable truth that at this moment there are six and a half billion people on this planet. And by year’s end there will be another 73 million. And every one of us will need energy to live.

CURWOOD: The images for this two and a half minute long ad were shot around the globe and then deftly cut together into a visual cascade of towering glaciers and crashing waves, smiling babies, and teeming cities. Millions of dollars went into the production, and many millions more are being spent to buy airtime.

John Carroll teaches communications at Boston University and is a longtime commentator on advertising. John, what do you make of Chevron’s ad?

CARROLL: It’s a gorgeous spot to look at. They’ve got this constantly shifting imagery that alternates between, sort of people—human emotion—and technology. And what they’re trying to do is that while this voiceover is going on—this voiceover that sounds like the introduction to a Frontline documentary—while this voiceover is going on they are showing images that are probably a lot more powerful and having a lot more impact than anything they’re saying. They are basically showing you and trying to get you to associate in your mind Chevron and this sort of sense of humanity and this sort of sense of connection.

CURWOOD: Now Chevron’s not alone in sort of looking for and trying to create good PR. How does this fit into the PR that the other major oil companies are using?

CARROLL: Virtually everybody’s got at least part of a campaign; some subset of their marketing devoted to this. BP has come out with a series of commercials with people saying ‘we need you to be concerned, BP, about your effect on the environment’ and their response is ‘we are concerned.’ So it’s a nice little call and response for them to go out and be able to say what they’re doing to protect the environment and to increase the energy production responsibly.

You’ve also got a similar situation with Exxon where they’ve got this reinventing-your-wheels campaign. They have the same issues and they have the same concerns that everyone in the industry does and they’re all going out there trying to patch their images. They’re all going out there trying to convince people that they are responsible citizens at this point and they’re providing a necessary service and they’re providing it in the most environmentally sensitive way they can and it’s no use hating them, because you know they’re doing the best they can.


VOICEOVER: This is our challenge each day. Because for today and tomorrow and the foreseeable future, our lives demand oil. But what’s also true is that we can provide it more intelligently, more efficiently, more respectfully.

CURWOOD: So how much money are they spending on this campaign between the making of this ad and then buying the time to get it in front of people?

CARROLL: The estimates I’ve seen are $40 million internationally that they will spend on this ad. So that’s not an overwhelming amount of money in terms of advertising but it’s a significant advertising if they’re going to do it over a short-period of time and that’s probably the best way for them to do it.

CURWOOD: How well is this ad going to do in terms of making people feel better about the big oil companies? I mean the polls say people don’t like big oil.

CARROLL: They don’t like them and they certainly don’t like the kind of money they’re making these days. I mean they think of them as price gougers and people who are just spoiling the environment when they’re not hanging out with Hugo Chavez down in Venezuela. So they are looking at Chevron with a real sort of jaundiced eye and this is a giant diversion machine that Chevron has produced here. These ads are long term, incremental, they don’t change public images of companies immediately. What they do is they slowly erode the negative image and try to replace it with a positive one.

CURWOOD: John Carroll is a mass communications professor at Boston University and a frequent contributor on advertising in the media for WBGH Boston. Thank you so much, John.

CARROLL: My pleasure, Steve.

MUSIC: Various Artists “Racing Away” from ‘1 Giant Leap’ (Palm Records—2001)]



Check out Chevron's "Untapped Energy" commercial on YouTube:


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