Tag Archives: advertising

Simians Cyborgs and Shell: on corporate propaganda and fallback positions

 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…

hybridhouse

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.

shell1947
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).

Renewable outrage

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.”

Acknowledgement

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.

Further Reading
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.

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Planes, Claims and Automobiles – #masculinity, #cars and #advertising

Two adverts have been on the idiot’s lantern at the gym (I am one of those tremendous bores who doesn’t have a television and lets you know at every opportunity)

Briefly, the plots; In one, a generically handsome (quietly athletic, mid-30s, stubbly; basically the male equivalent of the beige cheeky-boney woman you see in the other ads) is awaiting the arrival, by plane, of his gorgeous wife at their own isolated house in what might be the Canadian north (pine trees, lakes). There’s a (comedic, but unintentionally so) accident with the generator and the runway lights go out! OMG, She’s about to die!!! He leaps into his car, and because he can waggle the LED lights independently of the car, he guides her plane down. They exchange a steely, stoic and oh-so-sexy look, and the car logo comes up. Buy this car. You can be rich enough to own a plane, your own runway, and sang froid.

In the second, a generically handsome man (see above) is driving his sexy car. Over some ice. Suddenly a helicopter bristling with air-to-surface missiles appears, and starts to attack. He swerves and dodges among the explosions. Then (and this is dreamlike) the car is racing down on of those toboggan luge things. It flips up out of the luge, and circles over the helicopter. When it is directly above, the chopper pilot looks up and sees the car driver, smirking and in slow-mo, doing that points-fingers-at-own-eyes-then-points-at-pilot thing (i.e. “I own you.”) The car lands safely back in the luge chute, having done a complete circuit. The helicopter pilot, clearly distraught, doesn’t see a low-hanging powerline and is snagged, blowing up. The car pulls to a stop… Think that opening sequence in Top Gun, or perhaps Die Hard 4.0 and the “you killed a helicopter with a car” thing.

So far, so normal/outrageous/ridiculous/sinister and silly. I’ve wasted more time typing this up than I should have. What’s going on, under the surface?
I think there are claims about masculinity (I know, such insight!!)
Men are famously under attack (all those crazed feminazis out there, setting up roadblocks and burning their bras and calling for an end to everyday sexism via projects like Everyday Sexism . It’s the Handmaid’s Tale in reverse! We cis-men are oppressed!!)
And cars have been constructed as (sold as) places of virility for a century or so. (anything longer than wide is, after all, a phallic symbol).
What are these two adverts are claiming is that, via a halo effect, if you own the car you will have –
Mastery/competence, being able to improvise, and to cope when over-matched by either accident or malice. I’ve a friend who says that part of the attraction of James Bond is that he is able to become uber-proficient at whatever gadget Q gives him, and often literally shreds the instruction manual.

And you will be showing that you want to/are able to
Protect womenfolk
Defeat adversaries on the battlefield, especially ones with more firepower (one is reminded of Rambo and his exploding arrows in Afghanistan, or the Wolverines in Red Dawn. Nobody wants to win as the over-dog…)


See also

Decoding Advertisements by Judith Williamson
Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Newsflash: Fossil Fuel Lobby using blonde moppets as human shields in war on planet

Personally I am not a big fan of fascism.  Call me squeamish.  Nor am I a big fan of the whole ubermensch “Aryan blonde-blued eyed” thing .  Something to do with understanding who was on the land before whitey arrived and what whitey did to get that land.

I am not saying that the people shilling for Shell and Heathrow expansion are master-racers.  I am just saying that they have chosen – consciously or otherwise-  to mimic the visual grammar of the Nazis. Perhaps they didn’t read that Sontag essay carefully enough.

At 4pm I got an email from Greenpeace complaining about an advert that Shell is running.

greenpeacemoppet

At 10pm I got a facebook message from a very good friend, snapping something she’d seen on the tube.

heathrow picture arwa

Blonde girls as pictures of innocence.  Blonde girls as pure, representatives of the shining future that will last a thousand years.  Blonde girls (some of whom will grow up to do the whole Kinder Kuche Kirche thing), threatened by (unseen) wicked environmentalists. Who are probably communists and degenerates to boot.

There’s an implicit calculus of human worth here.  One rich white kid is worth, what, 50 poor brown foreign ones.  100?  Do I see a rise on 100.  Going once, going twice – 135 from the man in the suit over there.  135.  Do I see…  The irony is of course, that we think we can insulate ourselves from the consequences of our actions and we simply won’t be able to.  Things have gotten out of hand.*

I digress. Meanwhile, back to the crude visual analysis of crude visuals…We think we are beyond the crude rhetoric of the Creel Commission. And we are, just about…

Harry_R._Hopps,_Destroy_this_mad_brute_Enlist_-_U.S._Army,_03216u_edit

If only I knew someone doing a PhD thesis on the tools that fossil fuel companies have used to stop any action on climate change that would interfere with their profits; (that is “most of it, in most cases”).

No, wait…

Handnotes

* opposable thumbs eh?  A two-edged sword, them.