The Push for Ad Agencies to Ditch Big Oil Clients

An activist coalition is pressuring firms to stop promoting fossil fuel companies—some of which have advertised oil and gas as “climate friendly.”

Here is a completely true statement: Between 2015 and 2019, oil and gas firms doubled the share of their capital spending going to renewables and carbon-capture technologies. Here’s the chaser: That accounted for less than 1 percent of Big Oil’s overall capital investment, according to the International Energy Agency; 99 percent still went to oil and gas.

The additional context paints a very different picture of investments by fossil fuel companies in green energy. Now, as state and local courts sort through ongoing suits against Big Oil for misleading the public on its role in climate change, a new coalition is rising among the PR and ad agencies responsible for corporate messaging.

Duncan Meisel is the director of Clean Creatives, a coalition of people in the ad, PR, and marketing industries to refuse contracts with fossil fuel companies. Meisel says the idea for the pledge came after years of working in communications for environmental nonprofits, where progressive messaging campaigns are often countered by oil industry talking points from well-funded PR companies.

“Individuals within the creative industry have power to talk with their leadership, the organizations they work with, and get them to stop promoting the companies that are most responsible for climate change,” Meisel says. So far, more than 300 individual workers and 120 agencies have signed the pledge.

“Shell might come to us with a $1 million contract, and we’re walking away from that,” says Roger Ramirez, chief growth officer of the New York–based ad agency Mustache, which signed onto the pledge earlier this year. It isn’t an easy decision, Ramirez says, because “the reality is that the business is not built to sustain turning down potential large engagements.”

While Ramirez and others within the agency have long supported social causes, the agency’s parent company, Cognizant, had reservations. At about 60 people, Mustache is a midsize agency owned by a multinational parent company that works with fossil fuel companies. In the past, Mustache has taken on some of these contracts as well, making the pledge seem even more abrupt.

“It was a hurdle for us for sure, and it required a lot of conversation,” Ramirez says, describing months of talks between people at Mustache and Cognizant.

The Mustache team ultimately persuaded its owners by connecting the Clean Creative pledge with its own prior commitments to diversity and racial justice and arguing that racial justice should include environmental justice and sustainability.

Adam Lerman, Mustache’s associate creative director and chair of sustainability, says most ad agencies are similarly structured, meaning that sustainability commitments—however large or small—mean convincing superiors. Lerman suggests starting the conversation by emphasizing how leadership’s goals align with the cause, even if they don’t realize it.

“If you can identify that common interest and provide legitimate, verifiable evidence that says, ‘Hey, this thing that we care about is connected to this other thing, and we actually are hypocrites if we do A and B at the same time,’ that might be a way in.”

Since 2017, several state and local governments have been embroiled in ongoing legal battles with oil and gas companies, accusing them of misleading the public on the role of fossil fuels in climate change. While no ad agencies were named as defendants, the complaints specify 15 campaigns as misleading, meaning the agencies who created the campaigns could be dragged into the case.

In August, the American Association of Advertising Agencies issued guidance to agencies on avoiding greenwashing, pointing to the Federal Trade Commission’s standard of having “reliable evidence” to back up environmental claims. Alison Pepper, the group’s executive vice president of government relations, says there’s a “gap” between the FTC’s rules on the “reliable evidence” to support a claim and consumer expectations. She says the group has urged the FTC to further specify its rules on environmental claims to reduce greenwashing.

Fossil fuel companies spent $9.6 million in 2020 on Facebook ads that presented oil and gas as “climate friendly,” according to a report released earlier this month by UK-based think tank InfluenceMap. In one such ad, Shell references its “net-zero emissions” target with the hashtag #MaketheFuture. At the same time, it told investors that its “operating plans and budgets do not reflect Shell’s Net-Zero Emissions target.”

The bulk of the spending on Facebook ads came last summer, in the days immediately following then candidate Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan announcement. Ad spend (the seven-day average of money spent on ads) jumped from just under to $20,000 a week to over $80,000 a week. The spike continued until after the election in November.

InfluenceMap collated the nearly 7,000 ads and categorized them based on their content, finding that the majority of the summer spike ads focused on two messages: First, that oil and gas are fundamental to our daily lives and beneficial to local economies and small businesses. Second, that fossil fuel companies are part of the “solution” to climate change, investing heavily in a transition to renewable energy.

A May study from a team of Harvard researchers similarly found that ExxonMobil tailored its language in public-facing statements to emphasize “clean” oil, and that its actions were a response to “energy demand” from consumers.

A spokesperson for ExxonMobil says the company “has invested more than $10 billion since 2000, researching, developing, and deploying lower-emissions technologies” including “carbon capture and storage, biofuels and hydrogen, which are all part of ExxonMobil’s strategy and focus of our Low Carbon Solutions business.”

Putting pressure on ad agencies can be especially important, explains Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law. These ad campaigns and strategic alignments require the “the support, active engagement, and partnerships” among PR agencies, fossil fuel companies, and social media platforms. If public opinion or litigation points toward fossil fuel companies being held responsible for emissions that contribute to climate change, agencies will likely turn away from oil and gas clients.

“Simply saying ‘We relied purely on the client and didn’t investigate the truth of this ourselves’ is unlikely to be an effective defense,” Muffett says.

Importantly, the ongoing suits against oil and gas companies for misleading claims could ultimately unearth documents between fossil fuel companies and PR firms, explains Karen Sokol, an environmental law professor at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.

Revelations in the documents could cost the fossil fuel companies “their social license, and that’s when everything really starts to unravel,” she explains. “That’s what the disinformation is designed for, to maintain that social license, so they can keep conducting a highly dangerous business operation.”

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