BP’s advertising slick

John Weber Contributor
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“Even if alternative energy succeeds beyond the experts’ wildest expectations, the environmentally stressful and occasionally sloppy work of digging for more crude oil must continue for decades.  Will the public feel betrayed if, years from now, BP hasn’t really gotten ‘Beyond Petroleum’ after all?  Blanketing a giant oil company in flower petals can come back to bite you when the oily realities of a pipeline leak hit the front pages.”

–John Weber, Damage Control, 2007

I wrote those words more than three years ago when British Petroleum was seducing its critics with one of the most audacious green-washing campaigns of all time: a global advertising blitz that repositioned the goliath oil company as a humble, caring entity that was moving “beyond petroleum” toward gentler, cleaner sources of energy.  The ads de-emphasized the company’s core business of oil exploration and refining, while highlighting its comparatively modest investments in less polluting alternative energies.  The company’s new logo was a sunflower.

Though it was far less obvious in 2007, now that we’re 43 days into the worst oil disaster of all time it’s painfully clear that “Beyond Petroleum” was recklessly disingenuous as both a corporate objective and a creative strategy.  But the whole messy affair raises a more basic question: Why do large companies feel so insecure about presenting themselves to the world as they really are?

The simplest explanation is that many big businesses know they aren’t very well liked and believe glossy advertising campaigns can enhance their standing with the public, politicians, investors and other stakeholders.  Others are just in dirty, underappreciated industries, and a little spit and polish never hurt.  Fair enough.  That can be money well spent.

But there are personal reasons as well.  Most executives today have risen from the ranks of finance, law, or elite MBA programs.  It’s rare to encounter anyone from operations or manufacturing running a Fortune 500 company.  That’s the icky stuff someone else does—or is outsourced to Asia.  Let’s face it: The sensibility of today’s post-Watergate, post-Vietnam Baby Boomers who run corporate America is cynical and Left-leaning.  Other than Fed Ex’s Fred Smith, good luck finding an unabashed free-enterprise champion in the CEO’s office.  Today’s top corporate managers don’t want to make the case for big business, they want to be liked.

As a result, business-ethics scholar David Henderson has correctly observed that “international business today shows a reluctance or inability to argue a well-constructed and vigorous case for itself against unjustified criticisms and attacks.  It has failed to present an informed and effective set of arguments in defense of the market economy and the role companies play within it.”

This is particularly troubling given the Federal Reserve just reported that U.S. manufacturing capacity actually shrank for only the second time in the nation’s history and plants are operating at just 70% of potential capacity.  Which is why the clear-headed tagline of the new advocacy advertising campaign by NUCOR, the big steel-manufacturer, calling for “A Nation that Makes & Builds Things,” is timely, credible and well said.  It’s time that companies stood up for what they are, instead of contriving reasons for people to like them for what they’re not.

John Weber is president of Dezenhall Resources and author of Damage Control.