The oil major Shell has a blisteringly slick and seductive new advert that extols the virtues of gas as a ‘transition fuel’ (which it isn’t). As a piece of propaganda, it would make Donna Haraway guffaw with delight.
It’s 80 seconds of ‘Jenna and Cory’ who live together extolling the virtues of hybridity. They are ‘alternative’ (dyed hair, tattoes, piercings, vegan), living in a twee rural setting, and techno-geeky (there’s drone porn) who are trying to make a “hybrid house” – one of them is “super-nerdy, she takes everything apart”.
They think “in a few decades they might be able to rely solely on solar and wind energy, but we can’t do that right now” (we’ll come back to this). Instead they advocate natural (love that word) gas, because it’s the most “sustainable way to fuel your life”. The words “climate change” do not, of course, appear.
This is a straightforward reverse-McCarthy, an “innocence by association” gambit, aiming for a halo effect from all the nice crunchy granola things it’s putting on the screen. Readers with long memories might recall the applauding dolphins and sea lions from 1991, when they heard that another oil major, Conoco, was going to use double-hulled oil tankers.
In 80 seconds it ticks a huge number of boxes – woman-as-nature, ecological modernisation and corporate citizenship. It really renews the “whole earth catalogue” (Stewart) brand for the 21st century and appropriating the (false ) notion of “hybrid vigour”. The ad agency most definitely deserves its fee.
These adverts, in which nature is redeemer and advocate are not new – Esso had a ‘Tiger in the Tank’ and SSE has a soleful looking orang-utan shilling for it. The use of feminism/female empowerment to sell products goes back (at least) as far as the notorious “march” of actorvists called “Torches of Freedom” in 1929, organised by Edward Bernays for “Lucky Strike” cigarettes, tying smoking to women’s liberation. We should be taught how to deconstruct advertising in school, of course. But Berger (1972), Williamson (1978), Goldman and Papson (1996) are not, to our shame and loss, on the primary school curriculum…
Meanwhile, back in 2015, Shell are so confident of the righteousness of their message and the value of dialogue that….comments on the video are disabled. Perhaps they are learning from the ‘bashtag’ experiences that other corporations have weathered of late. Still, it’s had more thumbs down than thumbs up…
Shell and other companies’ history
Shell is justifiably proud of its advertising prowess, which dates back to the 1920s and especially the 1930s. As its own website says –
“But the decade saw many advances: great progress in fuel and chemicals research and an explosion of brilliant advertising with themes of power, purity, [emphasis added] reliability, modernity and getting away from it all. Many designs have become classics.” [And some are even National Trust-worthy]
Sadly at the same time Shell supremo Henri Deterling was palling around with Adolph Hitler – the latter speaking at his funeral in 1939.After the war, Shell’s mojo (briefly) deserted it- there’s an hilarious advert of a salad covered in oil.
If crimes against aesthetics were all that it was up to, you’d be forgiven for laughing. But as Andy Rowell writes
“In the post-war years, Shell manufactured pesticides and herbicides on a site previously used by the US military to make nerve gas at Rocky Mountain near Denver. By 1960 a game warden from the Colorado Department of Fish and Game had documented abnormal behaviour in the local wildlife, and took his concerns to Shell, who replied: “That’s just the cost of doing business if we are killing a few birds out there. As far as we are concerned, this situation is all right.”
But the truth was different. “By 1956 Shell knew it had a major problem on its hands,” recalled Adam Raphael in the Observer in 1993. “It was the company’s policy to collect all duck and animal carcasses in order to hide them before scheduled visits by inspectors from the Colorado Department of Fish and Game.” “
The 1990s were a particularly bleak time for Shell’s PR folks. They lost the Brent Spar battle, and the execution of 9 Nigerian activists, including author Ken Saro-wiwa presented them with real PR problems They started talking about sustainable development (Livesey, 2002) and also re-jigged their advertising, and were happy with the results (Victor, 2005).
However, Shell’s recent attempt to drill in the Arctic been catastrophic, both financially and in terms of its reputation. Greenpeace has them bricking it – Lego have ended a tie-in deal, and the combination of American kayakers, a giant polar bear stalking their HQ and Emma Thompson are giving them new headaches.
It’s in this context that this advert, advocating natural gas as a transition fuel, must be read. It’s a classic ‘you may not like us, but you need us’ statement. Further, the claim that renewables might be viable in a few decades is particularly interesting (and audacious). Costs of renewables are plummeting, and ‘grid parity’ (dangerous term) is approaching.
Shell, and other oil majors, might be wise to be nervous. And according to the excellent journalist Arthur Neslen, Shell has been lobbying the EU to undermine its next renewables target. As Goldman and Papson (1996: 200) observe –
“…in a sense, the advertising provides covering fire so the lobbyists can quietly do their work. The battles are often won in the lobbying trenches, but they cannot be won if public opinion, or more importantly, public opinion amplified by the television media, keeps attention focused on images of environmental degradation.”
Thanks to Guy Diercks for bringing this advert to my attention. While I retain any kudos for this analysis, all libel writs and threatening letters should be directed to him.
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin
Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson (1996) Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising New York ; London : Guilford Press
Greenberg, J., Kngiht, G. and Westersund, E. (2011) Spinning climate change: Corporate and NGO public relations strategies in Canada and the United States. International Communication Gazette 73, (1-2), pp. 65-82.
Levy, D. Reinecke, J. and Manning, S. (2015) The Political Dynamics of Sustainable Coffee: Contested Value Regimes and the Transformation of Sustainability Journal of Management Studies
Livesey, S. ( 2002) The Discourse of the Middle Ground: Citizen Shell Commits to Sustainable Development Management Communication Quarterly vol. 15 no. 3 313-349. http://mcq.sagepub.com/content/15/3/313
In this study, Foucauldian theory is used to interpret a corporate social report published by the Royal Dutch/Shell Group to reveal the contours of an emerging corporate discourse of sustainability and the knowledge-power dynamics entailed by social reporting. The report could be read simply as a corporate attempt to re-establish discursive regularity and hegemonic control in the wake of challenges by environmentalists and human rights activists. However, the author interprets it in the context of the larger socio-political discursive struggle over environment and social justice and finds that Shell’s “embrace” of the concept of sustainable development has transforming effects on the company and on the notion of sustainability itself. This contradictory and ambiguous result is characteristic of discursive struggle, which is where, according to Foucault, power is played out and social change occurs.
Pulver, S. (2007) Making Sense of Corporate Environmentalism: An Environmental Contestation Approach to Analyzing the Causes and Consequences of the Climate Change Policy Split in the Oil Industry Organization and Environment 20 (1) pp. 44-83.
Verity, J. (2005) Shell: an advertising success story. Strategic Direction Vol 21 (9), pp. 15-17.
Judith Williamson (1978) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Boyars.