I suspect it all started with someone at Greenpeace watching too many con artist movies like The Sting, The Game, or Catch Me if You Can. How else can you explain the sophistication behind a multi-stage hoax Greenpeace, together with The Yes Men group, ran to increase awareness of Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic?
First there was a viral video of a faked Shell party celebrating the beginning of its Arctic oil drilling operations. Then came the Arctic Ready website mocking Shell through an interactive ad contest. Finally, last week a faked Twitter account, @ShellIsPrepared went online, presenting a faked and somewhat clumsy reaction of Shell to the ad contest to make people believe it was a real contest that just went wrong.
While the whole complicated operation certainly grabbed the attention of many people as well as the media, it’s still not clear how effective it is. It’s hard to see what the goals of the campaign were, beyond ridicule. Another question that was raised by observers was about the legitimacy of such a hoax and the possible negative impact it might have on Greenpeace’s reputation. No doubt mastering online activism is at least as important as mastering it offline, but is this hoax activism at all?
It all started with a video produced by Greenpeace, the Yes Lab and members of the Occupy Seattle movement showing a party Shell held to celebrate the launch of its Arctic drilling program that went wrong, with a derrick-shaped drink dispenser suffering from an ‘oil spill’ and spraying the crowd with black liquid. The video went viral on YouTube, with over 800,000 viewers so far, which brought attention to the fake Shell Arctic Ready website. Already the hoax appeared more sophisticated than the usual prank, when Greenpeace upped the ante with a faked press release masquerading as Shell again – this time threatening to sue the activists responsible for this fake video.
While the video was a nice appetizer, the website was definitely the main course of this hoax. As Timothy Stenovec wrote on Huffington Post, at first glance it looks like a legitimate website created by Shell – the clean lines, judicious use of white space and the prominent placement of the familiar red and yellow “Shell” logo have all the markings of Shell’s homepage. It’s not too difficult though to find out this website is actually mocking Shell for its arctic oil drilling plans – on its homepage, for example, you can find the following text:
“That’s why we at Shell are committed to not only recognize the challenges that climate change brings, but to take advantage of its tremendous opportunities. And what’s the biggest opportunity we’ve got today? The melting Arctic.”
One of the website’s main features (besides the addictive kids’ game – Angry Bergs) was an ad contest, which asked visitors to create their own ads for Shell, using a gallery of pictures in need of captions. Over 12,000 people participated and the winner was a picture of a cute polar bear cub resting on his mother with the slogan “You can’t run your SUV on ‘cute.’ Let’s go.”
But that wasn’t all. There was still dessert to be served – a fake twitter campaign showing how the Shell social media team is supposedly trying to respond to the “offensive ads” that somehow got into the contest. “Please don’t share offensive ads. We’re working to remove them,” and “This mess will be cleaned up shortly. Stay tuned. #shell #arcticready” were just some examples of the tweets @ShellisPrepared sent over and over in the last couple of days. Some users that smelled a fiasco similar to the ones McDonald’s and Qantas had in the past started hammering Shell with tweets like “What a failure!!! And so true!!! Shell ad…”or “Shell’s crowdsourced ad campaign backfires slightly: my favourite is this one: http://bit.ly/OzYKu4.”
Eventually, the truth about the account was uncovered, but not before it generated, according to Forbes, over two million page views so far. Though this operation can be considered a success in terms of generating traffic the question is, what are the benefits of a multi-pronged campaign like this – and at what cost?
On the plus side, Greenpeace educated many people on the issue of drilling in the Arctic oil fields, however, the campaign has not generated any measurable public outcry over the practice. One reason is that Shell wisely chose to mainly ignore this hoax and responded very mildly. Yet, as we know from Greenpeace campaigns in the past, it can take months and in some cases years before you see any results, so it might be too early to judge the impact of this operation. A lot depends on the next moves Greenpeace will take.
The more interesting question is whether getting involved in a hoax is worth it. On one hand, Greenpeace is no stranger to taking actions that are illegal or in a legal grey area to draw attention to issues it cares about. On the other hand, Greenpeace’s reputation as a well-respected organization that is not afraid to take action, but knows where to draw the line is one of the reasons companies take it seriously. Entering the world of hoaxes can jeopardize this reputation, so maybe it’s better for Greenpeace to reconsider it before it’s too late. Do you agree?
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.