How the Ad Industry Makes Fossil Fuels Sexy


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The “think bigThe ad opens with a crashing highway set to soulful piano. Then there is a transition to a busy Tokyo street and a high-rise construction site, then to a man looking out of a window across a nocturnal metropolis. A woman’s voice tells us that in a world where the human population is constantly increasing, there is an ever-increasing demand for infrastructure. His words accompany other images of concrete and steel, before a pan over an open pit mine, followed by a series of smiling people wearing BHP helmets.

The ad lasts almost two minutes and its message is clear: to “think big”, that is to say strive— we need mining. And mining means BHP.

Nothing in the advertisement admits that in report after report, BHP ranks in the top 20 of the world’s largest carbon emitters. The ad also fails to acknowledge that over the past 15 years, BHP – which began life in Australia – has dumped approximately 2,361 megatons of greenhouse gases into the Australian atmosphere, which is higher than the projected emissions of the entire Australian population over the same period.

But perhaps most insidious was the moment of publicity: November 2018, just weeks after the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that the world had just 12 years drastically reduce its carbon emissions or risk irreversible warming above 2 degrees centigrade.

“This is the biggest bugle bell in the scientific community and I hope it mobilizes people and starts the mood of complacency,” said Debra Roberts, co-chair of the Impacts Working Group. the Guardianjust a month before the second phase of the BHP campaign was rolled out without a hitch by Australian ad agency Big Red.

Of course, that’s not to say Big Red is responsible for Australia’s sluggish response to climate change. But there’s a duplicity in the way ad agencies present themselves as socially and environmentally progressive and then advertise for other regressive environmental causes.

Advertising has long since moved away from the simplicity of product marketing and turned into a three-dimensional model of public relations. Modern agencies now negotiate image building, reputation management and consumer conversion, which is why mining and oil companies hire them to green fossil fuels. And according to experts, this is an incredibly successful strategy.

According to media and public relations researcher Dr Mitchell Hobbs, the Big Red campaign is a textbook case of “inoculation advertising”. It is an image-building method, used to portray an industry as essential to a certain way of life. The strategy works by presenting the resources produced in these sectors as absolutely essential to the functioning and development of a technologically advanced society. As Dr Hobbs explains: “In the past, the coal industry has argued that Australia could not have become an advanced industrial nation without coal-fired thermal power. The BHP ad is just a reinvention of that.

Big Red’s campaign emphasizes the importance of steel to economic and global growth. By alternating images of suspension bridges, consumer electronics and high-speed trains, consumers are distracted from the environmental drawbacks and instead focus on the lifestyle benefits.

It’s a smart distraction, says Dr. Hobbs. “They stop thinking about the big open pit mines and all the environmental devastation they have and instead see the essentials produced from that mineral extraction.”

The real effects of greenwashing are tangible. A few years ago, the Norwegian oil industry was threatened by stricter environmental regulations and advertising agencies were hired to do inoculation advertisements that presented Norwegian oil as an environmentally sustainable alternative to oil extracted from the Middle East. East. “They made Norwegian oil green in the public mind,” says Dr Hobbs. “Burning oil in your car has become a matter of preserving the environment.”

Now, at the end of 2020, the need for climate action has gone from urgent to worrisome. An August report from University of Leeds found that the rate of ice sheet melting in Greenland and Antarctica closely matched the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s worst-case global warming scenarios. Meanwhile, Australia’s worst fire season on record was quickly followed by America’s worst fire season on record, while the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has been so active that it has exhausted the regular list of storm names – only the second time this has happened in history.

Yet in Australia, the federal government is talking about natural gas as a way to pull the economy out of its COVID-induced collapse. And again, it’s the advertising agencies that sell the gas – the product, as well as its moral acceptability – to people.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a recent campaign by another Australian advertising agency, CHE Proximity, published on behalf of Singaporean and Chinese natural gas giant Jemena.

At the surface level, the three-part TV commercial simply highlights the advantages of natural gas over electricity. In one advertisement, a man is seen becoming a professional chef after using a gas stove. In another, a woman literally melts in a puddle as she relaxes by her natural gas heater. It’s emotional maneuvering at its best, but according to CHE Proximity CEO Chris Howatson, the campaign simply presents objective truth about gas.

“Every topic has different sides and different opinions around it,” he told VICE News. “I think there’s often an opinion that in advertising or in public relations, we can somehow create a new truth. But you can’t change the truth. You just have to figure out how you can attract people in an honest, open, and transparent way.

He goes on to admit that natural gas exacerbates global warming, but to a lesser extent than coal-fired power generation, and in this way CHE Proximity is only presenting a truth about gas by saying it is superior to electricity.

When asked if ad agencies have a responsibility to mitigate climate change, Howatson’s answer is unequivocal. “Certainly, definitely,” he said. “There is no doubt about it.”

His view on the solution, however, diverges significantly from those espoused by the UN. His position is that governments and official institutions are unable to make the kinds of severe cuts needed, so change can only come from big business. A kind of free market solution to a free market problem.

“Consumers have lost trust in government,” he says. “They have lost confidence in the institutions. And so there’s this big opportunity for brands to step in. You may have seen an advertisement in America called “The Scientist”, and it’s all about sustainable agriculture, and how sustainable farming practices can actually support one fast food chain, rather than the other all around.

Therein lies the solution, according to Howatson: in smart technology solutions forged by big business and paid for by consumers.

“We all have to do all of this as a community, so we don’t need the government,” he says. “I’m really optimistic that this is already starting to happen.”

This is a compelling argument, but one that ignores the fact that governments struggle to make progress because they are at the mercy of their constituents, who have been trained to be skeptical of the science of climate and resistant to change. And it’s ads, like those made by Big Red and nearby CHE, that contribute significantly to voter complacency.

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