On existentialism, guilt, Godard and … Shell’s corporate framing strategy

Shell has a new advert – another clever and slick one extolling the virtues of burning gas, which, by pure coincidence, they happen to sell. Why now with this? Well, a mere three decades after the scientists started saying “we’re gonna fry ourselves if we don’t get off the fossil fuel habit” we rich white people are finally thinking about talking about at some point in the middle future perhaps getting rid of one of the three fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal). And Shell sold its coal assets a while back, so would, along with the gas industry more generally, like to throw coal under the bus. It all came out in the open in June at a gas conference in Paris, the city of lights.

Fwiw, I’ve written here (“Simians, Cyborgs and Shell: Corporate Propaganda and Fall-back positions”) about Shell and its adverts. Slick stuff. This advert is a homage/pastiche/rip-off (take your pick) of Jean-Luc Godard’s stunning 1960 film “A Bout de Souffle” (or “Breathless”).

Shot in black and white (but curiously flat and expertly amateurish – probably another bid to seem quirky and authentic), it shows a pretty young woman and her French Bogart-y/Belmondo-y boyfriend in conversation, ostensibly about love, but actually about energy policy. She wants constancy, not intermittency, and he offers that he’ll always be around . It’s a parable, don’t you see – renewables can’t provide base-load electricity generation (says Shell), only natural gas can. It’s all done with subtitled dialogue and sub-Godardian camera angles.

This is presumably part one of a cunning two-part dog-whistling strategy. First they get you used to the idea that sophisticated people, who ‘get’ the (mis)appropriation of French cinema history, are willing to keep tipping enormous quantities of carbon into the atmosphere to maintain their tres debonair lives, (some other schmucks, without the distinction and cultural capital to have heard of Nouvelle Vague, pay; but they tend to be people in far off countries about which we know little. Like the Ogoni, to pick an example at random.)

The second part involves some meat-puppet politician telling you that natural gas is a transition fuel, and you nod along sagely, not even dimly aware that you’ve been primed.

Shell is in a spot of bother. On the question of carbon capture and storage (the only technology that might have given the fossil fuel industry a breathing space)  its boss had this to say

Van Beurden insisted that he had his hands tied from investing more heavily in CCS because they would not produce the high financial returns that investors had been used to from oil and gas. “I would lose my job over it if I just threw a few billions away [on CCS] … CCS is essential for society and … is ultimately important for our company, but listen, I have great difficulty to have shareholders focus on the quarter after next.”

More recently it got its Arctic arse handed to it by Greenpeace.

So at times of trouble, you fall back on what you are good at. And Shell is very very good indeed at distinguishing its indistinguishable-from-its-competitors’ product by appeals to identity, authenticity and naturalness. As the Australian cultural commentator Ross Gibson wrote two decades ago, back when climate change was possibly still manageable;

In 1953, John Heyer produced, co-wrote and directed a documentary film, The Back of Beyond, for the Shell Film Unit of Australia. For forty years in Europe, Shell had been engaged in advertising campaigns designed to “naturalize” their products in economies around the industrial world. The general strategy entailed representing Shell as innate to the good life available to the citizens of the twentieth century. “You can be sure of Shell” – the famous slogan is serene and solid like a landmass. Emphasising that Shell was part of Britain’s second nature, the company’s public relations exercises often functioned with the assurance and cunning of a myth of origin.
(Gibson, 1993; 135)

For my money (and as a PhD student, I don’t have a lot), Shell is trying to create another halo effect here. Rather than nature, female-ness and creativity, as per the ‘hybrid world’ advert, this time it’s about implying existentialism, passion and meaning. Which is a bit of a contrast to the lives of desperation, relentless banality and triviality that most of us are forced to live most of the time, but there you have it.  We’ll keep burning the fuels, so pretty soon our lives will still be full of desperation and banality. The mindless consumerism of trinkets may tail off a bit though.

Finally, there’s a couple of implications here that they presumably hope viewers are vague enough to miss. Casting itself as the Gallic gangster has the implication that it, like Belmondo’s character in Breathless, natural gas is a nihilistic narcissist/sociopath who uses up beautiful things and throws them to one side when they’re used up.

Also, I seem to recall it not ending well for the lad. One can only hope that there is a cop (or perhaps a “COP”?) to do the decent thing sometime rather soon.

So, Shell, I have two things to say – Go ahead, steal a great film, use it up, spit it out. That’s fine, that’s just what you do, who you are.

Oh, and Shell? Je dis que vous êtes vraiment “une dégueulasse”.


Gibson, R. 1993. “Yarning,”  pp 135-157 in South of the West: Post-colonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.


One thought on “On existentialism, guilt, Godard and … Shell’s corporate framing strategy”

  1. Shell originally was a tanker company: they set their sights on biofuels, because these can be transported in tankers. Biofuels haven’t panned out.

    Royal Dutch were the drilling company. They were criminals from day one. There’s no hope for their business and they should have liquidated it, but they won’t do it.

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