Another story that got lost in the shuffle last month: know how we are seeing all these oil companies advertise on network primetime, cable news, and Sunday talk shows about how they are making major investments in harnessing the potential of clean, environmental, and efficient sources? They are reassuring; they give the sense that aside from using fewer plastic bags and unplugging your cell phone charger, that climate change has penetrated the corporate psyche, has momentum with the big dogs. Well, guess what: the ads are almost all for show.
These ads would have you believe that the companies have suddenly gotten religion, are responsibly weaning off oil and coal, that the drills are slowing down, the solar panels are soaking in the rays. Not so. Case in point: Shell spent $1.7 billion since 2004 on alternative energy compared to the $87 billion it spent on oil and gas. That’s less than 2%. By now, you would think they had made more internal headway towards viewing themselves as Big Energy and not Big Oil, but the top 5 oil companies have spent about $5 billion on renewable energy in the last 15 years, 10% of what other investors have put in. They’re being grossly outspent in their own industry. These companies are not stupid, yet they ignored a core corporate investing principle: invest in future growth.
To makes matters worse, many of the companies have been cutting back on their already low spending. As Nathanael Greene, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council said, “The scale of their alternative investments is so mind-numbingly small that it’s hard to find them.”
Chevron’s CEO says he believes in renewable energy but thinks it’s “not realistic to suppose we can replace conventional energy in a timeframe that some suggest” and Exxon’s CEO said that with regards to energy and Obama’s election, “Nothing has really changed… We don’t oppose alternative energy sources… but to hang the future of the country’s energy on those alternatives alone belies reality of their size and scale.” (A. Nobody said “alone” and B. How’s it working out so far in the Middle East?)
Though they’re cutting solar, wind, and hydrogen spending, the one sector where these companies see real promise is plant fuels, which is terrific, since Brazil is kicking butt with sugar cane ethanol. Lamely, the U.S. is going about this the wrong way, using corn ethanol, which is more expensive and 5-6 times less efficient!
This all wouldn’t be so offensive if not for the ads. With the money they put down on the massive media buys and production, they could have pumped funding into new programs. Exxon could definitely spare the extra cash. And I don’t even know what to make of this BP spot… are they endorsing newborns at the wheel?
With the stigma around Big Oil, should we be surprised that they are riding the coattails of a current issue to jack up their brand perception and relevance? Maybe a few people didn’t feel so guilty going to the gas station for a few months there, so it’s all well and good, right? But, just look at these ads. Progressive techno-beats, heartfelt piano chords, and sober voiceovers can win anyone over.
Sometimes a good brand ad is just a good brand ad. A general rule I try to follow: don’t flaunt something before you’ve done it, because you’re going to get caught, and you’re going to look stupid.