"It's very simple," a wife explains to her husband in a New Yorker cartoon. "You want to be loved. I want to be loved. Mobil Oil wants to be loved."
That cartoon is framed on the wall near Herb Schmertz's desk, testament to a unique public relations campaign he's masterminded as Mobil's vice president for public affairs since 1969. Like no other oil company, Mobil has managed to insinuate itself into the national fabric through a shrewd and expensive combination of support for high quality entertainment (Masterpiece Theatre, for example) and slick advertising that patiently explains the oil industry is not run by profit-crazed bands of thieves.
"What we did in our advertising," says Schmertz, a cool customer with a dry wit and a law degree from Columbia, "is we made a real commitment to try to show our intellectual process . . . Over 90 percent of ads are conclusory, and we decided to reject that."
At Mobil, they're called "op-ed" ads, because the company likes to place them on the page opposite newspapers' editorial sections. And they are written in a first-person, oh-so-reasonable tone that resembles the advice Dad used to offer. For example, try part of this ad - written to appear after last month's Sun Day - on for comfort:
"Sure, we're hopeful that solar energy will do more than [just heat water or supplement conventional heating systems] someday . . . But what worries us is that all this attention to solar energy will delude our country into believing that the sun right now can do all the things that oil, gas, coal and nuclear power can do. It can't."
Not all of Mobil's op-ed ads argue for greater government incentives for expensive drilling or for "an even-handed approach to nuclear power." Some pause to praise Thanksgiving, the American standard of living, regular inoculation against diseases, and legal aid for the indigent. And five or six in a series headlined "Musings of an Oil Person" are off-the-cuff, thinking-aloud reflections of an oil exec pondering the complex problems of energy.
Schmertz, 48, pioneered the concept of the ads and edits each one. Often his ideas (which are then executed by an in-house staff of writers) come from reading an editorial or opinion column that includes what he considers a half-baked idea about national energy policy. Or, in the case of an ad about Sun Day, Schmertz was "amazed at the amount of coverage Robert Redford was getting. I argued it was diverting, leading the public to believe solar energy is just around the corner." Schmertz says his firm wanted "to inject some realism" into a situation in which he thought the media had been manipulated.
The man behind Sun Day, Dennis Hayes, gripes that Mobil ignored the validity of other options advocated during Sun Day such as increased use of hydroelectric and wind power. Redford wrote he was fascinated by Mobil's ads and noted, "If Mobil feels the need to spend such an excessive amount of money to print such a defensive message, then the awesome control they have had over our lives in past years is obviously being threatened."
Other consumer groups feel outgunned by Schmertz's $1.5 million annual ad budget.
"In choosing their words very carefully they can cloud the real substance of an issue and the reader isn't getting the benefit of both sides," says John McCormick of the Environmental Policy Center. McCormick suggested to Mobil that it allow public interest groups to answer some ads at Mobil's expense, so far to no avail. A colleague, Hope Robertson, adds: "They're extremely slick . . . I get mad because we obviously don't have the same funding. It's very disappointing when you know darn well there's a lot of information they're ignoring."
Whether it's due partly to the op-ed ad campaign that gets Mobil discussed and included in sophisticated cartoons, Schmertz says he thinks public perception of oil companies has softened.
"There's a lot more recognition as to where the problems started," he says. "The conspiratorial perception has largely abated. In April of 1977, when Carter launched a Henry Jackson kind of attack on oil, the press demolished him; we didn't have to do anything."