Recasting Big Oil's Battered Image

Acclaimed cinematographer Lance Acord's documentary-like Chevron ads move from stark global images to hopeful messages focused on people.
Acclaimed cinematographer Lance Acord's documentary-like Chevron ads move from stark global images to hopeful messages focused on people. (Screenshot From Chevron)
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007

A 2 1/2 -minute television commercial will debut this weekend, directed by Lance Acord, the cinematographer on "Lost in Translation," "Being John Malkovich" and "Marie Antoinette." It will feature music by the British composer Paul Leonard-Morgan, who was recently commissioned to write a piece for the U.S. Olympic Committee. And it will have an earnest voice-over by acclaimed indie actor Campbell Scott.

All this theatrical firepower has been marshaled for a new "power of human energy" campaign by Chevron, a charter member of Big Oil (often seen as Big Bad Oil). In today's eco-conscious political environment, Chevron is trying to portray itself as a company with "people of vision" striving to meet today's energy needs while searching for better, cleaner ways to meet them in the future.

It isn't the first time a big oil company has spent lavishly on image ads. British Petroleum rebranded itself as simply BP to stand for "beyond petroleum" and came up with a sunburst-style logo. In recent weeks, Exxon Mobil has been running print ads called "reinventing your wheels" about its efforts to improve fuel economy and "passport to progress" about the company's funding for U.S. math and science and overseas literacy programs.

But few have matched the new Chevron campaign for polish or emotion, or for its ambitious bid to recast itself as an environmentally responsible corporate citizen. Its creator said it was more of a "rallying cry" than an advertisement.

Shot in 22 locations in 13 countries over three months, the ads include real Chevron workers as well as actors. In an era when most TV ads are getting shorter, the Chevron ad that will air during "60 Minutes" this Sunday takes up an entire commercial break, which usually features five spots. The ad, along with three similar but shorter ones, will also appear on other television news shows and programs such as "Heroes," "Bionic Woman" and college football. A company official said the campaign will cost in "the high tens of millions of dollars."

Whether it will work is another question.

"What these ads, like all oil company ads, do is accentuate the positive and don't mention the venality, the environmental impact and overarching greed that is at the bottom of their businesses," said Bob Garfield, a TV ad critic for Advertising Age.

Despite past ad campaigns aimed at dousing consumers' ire over high oil prices or dissuading lawmakers set on new taxes or regulations, the oil industry remains more disliked than any other business in the United States other than the tobacco industry. A poll of 1,500 adults conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in August found that 45 percent had "very unfavorable" and another 21 percent "somewhat unfavorable" views of oil companies.

Chevron says its goal is to educate and inspire. Helen Clark, Chevron's manager of corporate brand and reputation, said the ads would be "targeted at a more influential audience. They won't appear on 'American Idol,' for instance, or 'Desperate Housewives.' " She said "Heroes" was chosen because it "speaks to the personal spirit and ability to overcome things."

The ad opens with what appears to be faintly illuminated rainfall against a black background. The words "tapped energy" morph into "untapped energy." Suddenly the viewer is gliding over glaciers, then a skyscraper lit up at night. "And outside the debate rages," Campbell Scott's narration begins. Images flicker: a drop of oil on rocks, an oil derrick, a smog-covered city, oil wells on fire.

"Oil, energy, the environment. It is the story of our time," Scott continues. Images of megaphones, protesters. "And it leaves no one untouched. Because make no mistake. This isn't just about oil companies. This is about you and me" -- images flash of a mother feeding a child, a man walking a dog in the rain, crowded escalators -- "and the undeniable truth that at this moment there are 6.5 billion people on this planet. And by year's end there'll be another 73 million. And every one of us will need energy to live." Pause. "Where will it come from?"

The ad's answer is that while Chevron produces solar and geothermal energy, oil is still needed.

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