Critics spoof new Chevron ads promoting responsibility

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 12:11 AM

When Chevron launched a striking new ad campaign Monday, touting itself as an oil company that supports renewable energy and small businesses, among other things, it already had some company. Tipped off early to the new ads, critics of the oil giant posted an online spoof of the Chevron campaign the night before, as big and bold as the real thing.

In each of the five full-page Chevron ads appearing in major newspapers, enormous headlines declare that oil companies have responsibilities, using phrasing such as: "Oil companies need to get real" and "Oil companies should support the communities they're a part of." Those declarations are then followed by the assertion "We agree," as text in smaller type highlights the social virtues of Chevron's business.

After learning of plans for Chevron's ad campaign weeks ago, three organizations drew up their own fake ads and posted them on a Web site Sunday night. Like the Chevron ads, the spoofs use colorful photographs of people and play on Chevron's declarations with their own large headlines, such as: "Oil companies should stop endangering life."

The imitations are the handiwork of the Yes Men, who have played pranks mocking major corporations in the past. They have pretended to be U.S. Chamber of Commerce officials declaring support for climate change legislation and have posed as Dow Chemical officials pledging costly reparations to the thousands of victims of the 1984 pesticide plant disaster in Bhopal, India, caused by Union Carbide, now a unit of Dow. The Yes Men group says on its Web site that "our targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else."

Amazon Watch and Rainforest Action Network also took part in the lampooning, providing photos and information about a dispute over whether Chevron is responsible for environmental damage in Ecuador left behind decades ago by Texaco, which was later acquired by Chevron. Chevron has asserted that Texaco fulfilled its side of an agreement with the Ecuadoran government by cleaning up a large number of sites.

"When we learned about this and about the framing, we thought this is absolutely ridiculous," Maria Ramos of the Rainforest Action Network said of Chevron's ads. "They must think the American people are absolutely stupid. When it comes to oil spills, climate change and human rights abuses, we need real action from Chevron. Instead we get this high-cost glossy ad campaign."

The fake ads are no laughing matter for Chevron, which says it will push ahead with its own campaign.

"This campaign is about having a real conversation about energy issues and about finding common ground where we can move forward, and it's disappointing that there are groups that are interested in attacking Chevron and not engaging in a rational conversation," Morgan Crinklaw, a Chevron spokesman, said Tuesday. "Yesterday's stunt shows that there are groups out there that are not interested in moving forward responsibly together."

The real Chevron ads, designed by the New York firm McGarryBowen, are attention-grabbing on their own. The photos - which use models - are by Steve McCurry, who has taken many iconic photos for National Geographic magazine. Television versions of the ads, scheduled to start airing during the morning political talk shows Sunday, were shot by James Gartner, who directed the 2006 film "Glory Road." The television ads use non-actors.

In one of the print ads, laughing women in traditional African head garb appear next to a headline that reads: "Oil companies should support the communities they're a part of." Below are the words "We agree," accompanied by signatures from a Chevron vice president and the executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

In smaller type, the ad says that Chevron has provided microloans to thousands of entrepreneurs in Angola, funded polytechnic universities in Indonesia and committed $55 million to the Global Fund. (Of that, $30 million has been paid over the past three years, and $25 million will be paid over the next three years, Crinklaw said.)

Another ad shows the pleasantly weathered face of a middle-aged man who could have stepped out out of a J. Crew ad. "Oil companies should put their profits to good use," the ad reads, followed by the "We agree" line and the signature of Chevron's chief financial officer. Smaller type says Chevron has invested $100 billion "bringing new energy to market" over the past five years. "We're making every penny count."

In addition to Chevron executives, other ads are co-signed by representative of Teach for America, a recipient of Chevron support; S&S Supplies and Services, which provides hand tools, welding supplies and janitorial services to Chevron's Richmond, Calif., refinery; Weyerhauser, a Chevron partner in a cellulosic biofuel project; and Kiva, a microlending group.

The print ads are running in The Washington Post, Economist, New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

The parodies look similar at first glance. The typeface is the same. But instead of laughing African women or ruddy models, the parodies feature a Cofan tribal elder from Ecuador; a worker wearing a hard hat and a mask and standing knee deep in a dirty-looking river with oily containers; and a sad-looking child in front of a rusting barrel.

The content of the headlines and small type play off the original ads. One says: "Oil companies should clean up their messes." The small type adds: "For decades, oil companies like ours have worked in disadvantaged areas, influencing policy in order to do there what we can't do at home. It's time this changed. People in Ecuador, Nigeria, the Gulf of Mexico, Richmond, and elsewhere have a right to a clean and healthy environment too."

Another says, "Oil Companies Should Fix The Problems They Create." The smaller type reads: "Extracting oil from the Earth is a risky process, and mistakes do happen. It's easy to pass the blame or ignore the mistakes we've made. Instead, we need to face them head on, accept our financial and environmental responsibilities, and fund new technologies to avoid these mistakes in the future."

Chevron's Crinklaw said that the Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch were motivated by setbacks suffered by plaintiffs in the marathon legal battle over Chevron's responsibilities in dealing with the environmental damage in Ecuador.

In the case, the plaintiffs say Chevron should pay billions of dollars to cover costs of cleaning up remaining damage they say was caused by oil that leaked from open storage pits. Chevron disputes the extent of the damage as well as its liability.

"There has been a significant amount of fraud uncovered in that case on the part of the plaintiffs," Crinklaw asserted, "and these groups that are associating themselves with the plaintiffs are trying to distract people from what's really going on in that case."

Karen Hinton, a spokeswoman for the plaintiffs in the Ecuador case, disputed Chevron's characterization, saying, "the real fraud is in the ground and water of the Ecuadorian rainforest."

RAN's Ramos said that the Chevron ads were an example of "green-washing" that needed "calling out."

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