Ad industry creatives target fossil fuel clients

In 1948 the American polymath, Harold Lasswell, formulated five questions: Who says what, which channel, to whom, and with what effects. He later added two more suggested by a critic: For what purpose and under what circumstances.

In a world saturated with persuasive communications – for both legitimate and nefarious purposes – it is a useful tool to de-construct who is saying what, how and why.

It is also a useful tool to understand the issues confronted by The US Clean Creatives Campaign –  a Fossil Free Media campaign launched last year with a Polluted PR report.

The Clean Creatives campaign aims to promote more environmentally-responsible policies among advertising and PR agencies and their clients.

It targets PR firms and advertising agencies “that deploy multimillion dollar greenwashing and misinformation campaigns that help delay climate action on behalf of fossil fuels clients” and claims that much of the $200 million-odd that oil and gas companies spend on marketing every year- which dwarfs that of  clean energy and campaign groups –  which ultimately distorts “the public discourse around climate change by drowning out the public”.

While many fossil fuel companies do have clean energy policies Fossil Free Media points out that while BP has launched high profile branding campaigns (supported by WPP) depicting its transition to a renewable energy company, oil and gas account for 96% of its activities.

The report highlights that many agencies are often reticent about their relationships with oil and gas clients quiet although they are often reticent about all their clients.

But the campaign lists a number of major firms that support the industry include Hill+Knowlton Strategies (Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron); Fleishman Hillard (API, Natural Gas Industry, National Association of Manufacturers); Porter Novelli (American Public Gas Association); Ketchum (Exxon Mobil); Weber Shandwick (Exxon Mobil); Edelman (Shell, Chevron, and numerous industry bodies); FTI Consulting (Exxon Mobil and the Independent Petroleum Association of America) and Brunswick (BP).

The author was very pleased that, after the report, his old firm Porter Novelli (he was a member of the global board), severed its relations with the American Public Gas Association after having run a campaign to promote the use of gas in the home at a time when households were transitioning to apparently cleaner electric energy.

The report claimed  that Edelman, which ended a relationship with the American Petroleum Institute in 2015, allegedly worked with the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), an organisation that has used “fake front groups and other dirty tactics” to encourage government easing of regulations designed to protect the environment.

When approached for comment by PRovoke, a PR industry newsletter, an Edelman spokesperson declined to comment directly but pointed to a company statement which states that Edelman is “proud of the work we do to support our energy clients as they work to reduce emissions while continuing to provide reliable, affordable, and ever cleaner energy to meet the demands of a growing global population”.

Another case study alleges that FTI Consulting worked on behalf of the oil industry to create misleading web assets aimed at politicians and other decision makers. A New York Times article was allegedly involved in the formation of grassroots organisations (a technique known as Astro-turfing) to build support for fossil fuels. The Financial Times subsequently reported that FTI Consulting was facing a client backlash over the issue.

Fossil Free Media has sent the report to all the named agencies and their clients urging everyone in the communications ecosystem to play in combating the “growing harm of fossil fuel misinformation”. It also urges agency staff to refuse to take on fossil fuel industry-related work, and clients to put pressure on agencies by asking them about their ties to the industry and threatening to withdraw business if they maintain those ties

A year on Clean Creatives has issued a new report – The F-list 2021 – which documents 90 advertising and PR agencies working with fossil fuel companies contributing to climate change.

Among highlights of the 2021 report are how net zero claims are the new greenwashing; an analysis of the gap between the stated sustainability policies of major advertising and PR groups and the policies of their fossil fuel clients; and paid disinformation in the form of fossil fuel online advertising.

In the US it has been supported by the September announcement that a US Congressional oversight committee has officially launched an investigation of fossil fuel industry disinformation on the climate crisis.

It also now has an Australian arm. Comms Declare, which is working towards the same aims. No doubt it will have something to say on the massive greenwashing ad campaign the Morrison Government will launch before the next election (with your taxes) as well as some words with the creatives and their clients about the campaign.

All in all much of it is a re-run of the tobacco industry campaigns designed to forestall restrictions by fostering doubt, despite Sir Richard Doll’s research showing there was no doubt whatsoever,  about the harmful effects. Although two new books – Pushing Cool by Keith Wailoo and The Devil’s Playground by Lauren Etter – show that even the tobacco industry has not yet given up its old strategies.

Some of the same players – such as Hill & Knowlton – who pioneered this ‘doubt’ strategy of delaying action on tobacco have also been involved in the fossil fuel campaigns.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that one of the pioneers of the US industry, Edward Bernays, promoted female smoking with a parade of women in New York puffing away. Bernays was also on the United Fruit payroll and masterminded the PR campaign which led to the CIA-organised coup against the democratically elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz.

Guatemala has been suffering ever since.

Lasswell’s questions are still valid today – but another useful one for whenever you see media coverage casting doubt on some climate change is that tried and true one Cui bono?