Exxon is usually not known for Greenwashing. They gave that up after the Valdez spill put their reputation in the garbage heap of history. Instead, for years they have stuck to their guns, proudly declaring themselves an ‘oil company’, dismissing renewable energy, and spreading misinformation on global warming.
But extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. The wave of green awareness, spiking gas prices and increasing concern about oil dependence has Exxon publishing print ads about batteries for hybrid cars and TV ads with images of wind turbines and talk of environmental responsibility. Indeed these are strange days on planet Earth. See for yourself here.
Op-Ads and Ad Bluster
Over 30 years ago Mobil established ‘ownership’ of a corner of the New York Times editorial page to use as they saw fit. This contract with the Times continued after the merger of Exxon and Mobil in 1999. The Op-AD space has been the home to varieties of greenwash and energy and climate misinformation balderdash over the years, in most cases bragging about small efforts with a big pen. Ross Gelbspan’s website, Heat Is Online, offers some classic Exxon quotes from these paid op-AD pieces.
Oldies but Goodies
We also have a few old Exxon and Mobil TV ads that show the history, thanks to fantastic YouTube fanatics transferring old VHS tapes.
One UK ad from Exxon’s Esso brand shows the famous Exxon tiger running down a pristine beach. The image makes you feel what? Power, freedom, strength, majesty? This might be contrasted with the horrific and criminal beach and rock washing the company did after the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Captain Hazelwood’s drunken incompetence spewed 11 million gallons of crude over 1,700 miles of Alaskan shoreline. This was a mess that was honestly never going to come clean no matter how hard they scrubbed at the oil. Yet Exxon deployed a massive effort to wash the rocky shoreline; scrubbing, steaming, and rinsing away the oil on the surface of the rocks, driving it deeper and deeper into the beach and killing any organisms struggling to survive within the hot water. This debacle was featured in the 2006 film Out of Balance by filmmaker Tom Jackson. SourceWatch explains more about this episode of greenwash.
Another ad from 1980s shows off the company’s endeavors to drill in the Arctic Ocean, an idea later executed by BP at the Northstar project (and strongly protested by Greenpeace and native Alaskans in the 1990s). The idea of drilling to the ends of the earth is back in vogue and Exxon’s current ad campaign looks and sounds very familiar. Once again the company is misleading consumers into thinking that its efforts to exploit the arctic are heroic and is bragging about its bravery and skill at drilling deeper, farther, and better. You can watch and compare their old and new ads.
Summer 2008 campaign
Exxon continues to struggle to reform its image in the hearts and minds of the American people. Its most recent ad campaign clearly targets the broad distrust of the oil industry over oil prices and environmental responsibility. It stresses the company’s technological prowess, appealing to the techno-optimist in all of us. Exxon also knows that there is a pitched battle right now on energy and climate policy.
On June 17th, Russell Gold of the Wall St Journal wrote the first analysis of the new Exxon ad campaign that launched June 1st. Gold wrote:
“Chief executive Rex Tillerson appears in one of the ads, which began running earlier this month, discussing the company’s goal of caring for the environment as it provides energy to the world.”
And “Exxon’s ads are part of a growing effort by the industry to counter a political backlash against rising oil prices and global-warming worries.”
Ad spending rises with the geyser of profits the oilies are bathing in. Again the Journal reports:
“As gasoline prices have risen, so has industry spending on its image. The companies and their industry associations spent $52.5 million on advertisements in the first quarter, up 18% from the same period a year earlier, according to tracking firm TNS Media Intelligence. This spending is expected to jump in the second quarter on the back of Exxon’s campaign, which has included print advertisements in the New York Times and a weeklong series of two-page ads in The Wall Street Journal.”
Clearly, Exxon has money to burn and the newspapers are plenty glad for the revenue. A two-page color spread in the New York Times, Washington Post or Wall St. Journal could cost upwards of $300,000, depending on the placement and day.
Clearly image is a problem for the entire oil industry, the Wall St. Journal reports that “An API public-perception poll in late 2006 found the public ranked the oil industry below even the tobacco industry.”
To counter this new low in public opinion, Exxon must portray itself “as a company filled with technology whiz kids working to secure the world’s energy future. Earlier this month, Exxon also began sponsoring Nova – a public-broadcasting science program.”
The new ads can be viewed here.
These Exxon TV ads hit most of our key Greenwashing criteria:
The core business of Exxon, oil, is still a major source of global pollution, “when used as directed”. In addition, refineries, drilling operations, and the risk of supertanker oil spills make the oil biz one of the dirtiest on earth.
The company can talk about better batteries, better engines, efficiency and caring for the world all it wants, but in the end, the more oil we use the more money the company makes and it is not inclined to sell LESS. Right now Exxon is spending tens of billions on new oil exploration, driven by record value per barrel of oil. In its most recent annual report, Exxon listed 15 major projects that it has undertaken since 2007, and all of them revolve around more drilling, more pipelines and more carbon emissions . There’s no mention of investment in wind, solar or other alternative energy sources.
Wait a second, rewind…did I see a wind turbine? Does Exxon have anything to do with wind power? Sure enough on one of these ads, with CEO Tillerson floating in front of long math formulas and images, all of a sudden an image of a wind turbine and other alternative energy sources scroll by. Tillerson is muttering something about needing to explore all types of energy, but the implication is that Exxon IS investing in renewables. It is not. In fact, the only mention of renewable energy in its annual report relates to its contributions to Standford’s Global Climate and Energy Project – a multimilllio-dollar black box R and D program, where money goes in and no ideas come out . Exxon will continue to push this program as evidence of its environmental leadership, when in fact the program has little to show for all the millions of investment. The University has taken some heat over the controversial partnership, but continues to ignore protests by alumni and donors, who don’t have as much cash to offer as Exxon.
It’s no secret that Exxon is buying friends in Congress and elsewhere to fight environmental regulations on its behalf. As evidence, last year Exxon spent $17M lobbying congress and lining up troops to push against various elements of the Clean Air Act and climate bills, while also pushing to open sensitive wilderness to drilling and other dirty operations. Altogether the oil industry spent a whopping $84M lobbying in 2007, Exxon alone accounted for over 20% of that.
At the same time, Exxon is also a heavy hitter when it comes to campaign contributions, providing over $850,000 to candidates, most of that to republicans who support the company’s drill-more, emit-more agenda. Exxon doesn’t stop there though, the company is also trying to influence voters, as evidenced by its leads sponsorship of many political telecasts, including presidential debates. CNN has been one of the company’s best friends, providing it with hours of airtime throughout the campaign season.
 ExxonMobil, 2007 Summary Annual Report
 ExxonMobil, 2007 Summary Annual Report, pg. 14