Peter York On Ads: Good ol' Exxon
It's on the side of the angels and there's not a Texan in sight
Sunday 22 June 2008
Who exactly is to blame for the oil price crisis? Just like the credit crunch, we want to know who to hate. (We can't string bankers up like Mussolini, but we'd like to make them do 10 years on a supermarket check-out.)
The obvious suspects are the ultimate suppliers, the Opec countries – mostly rather unsympathetic, particularly the Saudis with their dodgy defence contracts and their institutionalised misogyny.
One of the great 20th- century lessons was that owning significant oil deposits very ra rely does the host nation any real good. The wealth usually doesn't get distributed – it stays in very few hands. And it seems to suppress any native inventiveness the nation might have had.
Anyway, if it's not the oil producers doing something tricky, creating false scarcities to inflate the value of their reserves, it could be the demand side – all those new buyers in the hyper-growth economies of Asia.
But can any of this really explain the astonishing, devastating rise of oil prices from $70 a barrel last year to almost $140 last week?
Perhaps it's about speculation. Couldn't it have been more licensed betting by smart young men in Wall Street and the City who'll punt on anything if it will give them a turn?
And then there are the oil companies themselves – the ones that discover the stuff, extract it and sell it to you at the pumps. Their profits are getting more gigantic still.
The oil companies are fascinating – their scale, their global stretch, their automatic entrée to every power-broking darkened room in the world, and their disciplined secretiveness.
Of Fortune's list of the world's 10 largest corporations, six are oil groups. Despite their determinedly dour public stance, that order of money and power has to attract big stories and glamorous fictions, from 'Giant' to 'Dallas' to 'There Will Be Blood'.
ExxonMobil is the world's second-biggest company, and the most profitable. It's got a lot to defend and it spends a lot on defence, using advertising and PR to put its point across. One huge theme of its lobbying has been to sponsor scepticism about global warming by funding right-wing think-tanks and scientists to produce anything to suggest that it's all the invention of business-hating leftie tree-huggers. And stop the US signing up to the Kyoto treaty.
In the internet age, people sort of know this and the company has been the butt of massive criticism practically everywhere.
But its new corporate TV advertising shows sensible, co-operative ExxonMobil making progress against the world's problems. It showcases people with whom media folk can identify. It suggests non-specific sympathies that feel on the side of the angels.
The ad features two women and a British man. Nice-looking engineer Claudia Napolitano, elegantly shot in black and white, talks about the "challenges to develop energy in an environmentally friendly way". Then Alan Kelly, president of global lubricants, says: "We're going to need all sources of energy". Emma Cochrane, a natural gas specialist, says they've invented something tremendously useful.
Unlike the ExxonMobil main board, there's not a Texan Good Ol' Boy in sight; instead there are these three nice people you could meet at dinner in Blair's Islington, plus a lot of globally responsible backdrops – Asians on bikes and so forth – and the strapline, "Exxon-Mobil, taking on the world's toughest energy challenges". We all know it's greenwash – but the girls get in below the radar.
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