When oil giant Chevron announced a major new ad campaign with both TV and print ads aimed at highlighting the company’s sustainability efforts, they were surprised to discover a mischievous email campaign that had been launched simultaneously, masquerading as a company press release and directing readers to a website with an alternative version of the ad. Three environmental groups: Rainforest Action Network, Amazon Watch and the Yes Men claimed responsibility for the spoof.
In the original ad, which can be found at: http://www.chevron.com/weagree/ the company makes a number of statements about how a company should behave, such as:
- Oil companies should put their profits to good use.
- It’s time for oil companies to get behind the development of renewable energy.
- Oil companies should support the communities they’re part of.
To which the company responds in every case with the simple refrain, “We Agree.” On their website they provide links with statements from company officers saying that they are proud that they produce energy and create jobs. The links also include a series of videos entitled, “What Chevron is doing.” These videos show Chevron developing natural gas fields in Australia, capturing geothermal energy in Indonesia, and showing children’s learning centers that the company has invested some $5.3 million in to provide educational television programming to various developing countries including South Africa, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Angola.
In the “alternative” version of the ad, which can be seen at: http://www.chevron-weagree.com/ , the statements include:
- Oil companies should clean up their messes
- Oil companies should fix the problems they create
- Oil companies should put safety first
- Oil companies should stop endangering life
To all of which, in this hypothetical ad, the company also enthusiastically states, “we agree.”
The cleanup portion refers to the major oil spills that occurred over a protracted period in the Oriente region of Ecuador, for which Texaco (which is now owned by Chevron) has been named the responsible party in a multi-billion dollar lawsuit that has been dragging through the courts for well over a decade. The ad also mentions Nigeria (Chevron, Shell) and the Gulf of Mexico (BP). The Ecuador spill and the subsequent court battles are the subject of the documentary film Crude. The plaintiffs in the suit, representing a number of indigenous tribes, are still waiting for the funds to clean up the mess, which has polluted much of the fresh water in the region and has allegedly been linked to widespread illness. Filmmaker Joe Berlinger is also engaged in a lawsuit with Chevron, who is suing him for possession of unreleased footage.
Though the fake ads were intended as a prank, publications such as Fast Company and Advertising Age were apparently fooled by them, running commentary as if they were authentic, a clear sign that the prank was a well executed one indeed.
But there is a more serious issue at stake here, which I think the prank does an excellent job of raising.
Is this type of ad campaign on Chevron’s part the worst kind of greenwashing, or should companies that have performed irresponsibly in the past, be given another chance, particularly if their new efforts appear to be sincere?
I have no reason to believe that these new efforts by Chevron are insincere. But should we simply forget about past transgressions, move on, and let bygones be bygones?
Since our current Supreme Court seems to think that corporations are the same as people, then I suppose they should be treated the same as people. So, if an individual behaved irresponsibly to me and caused harm to, before forgiving them, I would expect them to:
a) Come clean and admit that they made a mistake
b) Apologize, which shows respect to the injured party
c) Take responsibility and repair the harm done to the extent possible
We seem to have an accountability deficit disorder, which originated in our corporations and has spread into our political system and our society at large. Yet, if we do not begin to demand accountability from companies, business leaders, politicians, celebrities, etc. we have little chance of being able to effectively address any of the major problems that currently confront us.
So, for me, personally, I would like to see Chevron run both ads.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, which is based in part, on the Ecuadorian oil spills.
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