But it turned out that the group had a script — and Gabe Elsner had a different one.
Scene one: The American Petroleum Institute and its public relations firm, Edelman, decide to hold a casting call for a television commercial promoting the oil and gas industry.
“We are writing to you because we need all ages and races to express their views in a Commercial Spot on American Made Energy!” says an e-mail sent by a casting company hired by the API. The first of “the ONLY qualifications” listed on the e-mail: “You are willing to go on camera and state your beliefs.”
Another is: “You are comfortable portraying YOURSELF! They want REAL PEOPLE not Actors!”
See a past API commercial here:
Scene two: Elsner, 24-year-old deputy director of a watchdog group called Checks and Balances Project, learns of the casting call from “one of our allies” and volunteers by e-mail last Friday night. By the next morning, he is booked for a 10:30 am slot at the Bella Faccia studio in northwest Washington.
Scene three: Elsner shows up as instructed with three wardrobe options, ranging from a suit to weekend wear. The API and Edelman staffers pick the suit and steam it, pick out a tie, usher him into the makeup room, then send him for the audition. One says he has “a nice, young professional’s look.” Elsner hears Edelman executive Robert McKernan say, “I think we’re done with people in suits after this.”
One accessory they don’t notice is the phone in his pocket, recording what happens next.
Scene four: Elsner is escorted to the sound stage and asked to repeat the following lines:
“I vote,” he is prompted.
“I vote,” he repeats.
“I vote!” more emphatically this time.
“I vote!” Elsner repeats.
“For American Jobs,” he is told.
“For American Clean Energy Jobs,” he responds.
“Just, ‘For American Jobs,’” the staffer says.
“For American Clean Energy Jobs,” Elsner repeats. “I’d like to add that...”
“Just deliver the line. That we have. Just, because, just cut for a second,” the staffer says. “Are you…I want to make sure that you are okay with what we are doing as far as the script goes.”
Elsner says, “Well I didn’t see the script. I was told that I was going to be able to deliver my views on camera.”
Enter the producer. More dialogue.
Elsner contacts journalists — with the help of his own public relations person from Tigercomm. “They’re using deception to talk to Americans about the oil and gas industry,” he says. “These multi-million dollar campaigns are clearly being crafted to give the appearance that it’s ordinary people talking. What we experienced was that it was well scripted and totally set up to be the perfect commercial.”
Edelman doesn't return a phone call.
But the API gets wind of Elsner’s efforts and blogs about them.
“Some activists stopped by an API commercial shoot the other day and - after a catered breakfast and some hot coffee - decided that, hey, they don’t like oil or natural gas. So, they grandstanded for a few minutes, before deciding not to spend their Saturday hanging around a bunch of other people who do support oil and natural gas,” API says.
“And those other people? They were folks who want America to use more domestic resources like oil and natural gas. They support the job creation, economic growth and tax revenues that come with it. You’ll be seeing more of them in our ads in January.
“And the activists? I don’t know where they’ll be, but if they don’t like oil or natural gas, they’re probably not that far away. Although, being January, they might be cold. If you see them, offer them some more hot coffee.”
API spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel in an interview adds, “We invited volunteers who support oil and gas to participate. The goal was to get real voters who care about energy and oil and natural gas.”
Elsner says the experience gave him “an inside look into how one of the biggest lobbying groups in the country is producing its public-facing material.”