The Heat Is Online

Chevron Ad Spins A Green Vision

Chevron campaign tries to balance need for oil with global warming


San Francisco Chronicle, September 28, 2007


Stumble onto Chevron Corp.'s latest television ad and you might think you're watching outtakes from "An Inconvenient Truth."


The camera swoops low over oceans and freeways, glaciers and gleaming cities. A warm but solemn voice proclaims energy and the environment to be the greatest challenges of our time. The voice, however, soon takes off in a direction Al Gore's global warming documentary never did.


"Our lives demand oil," it says.


Chevron's new advertising campaign, which starts Sunday, represents the oil giant's latest attempt to stake out a spot in the debate over future energy supplies. Although it touches on a topic the oil industry once hated to discuss, the ads never use the terms global warming or climate change.


Instead, the narrator says, "Oil, energy, the environment. It is the story of our time."


San Ramon's Chevron won't say how much it spent on the ads. But the first will take up 21/2 minutes of airtime on "60 Minutes," prime real estate in the advertising world. The ads were shot in 13 countries, filmed by the cinematographer from "Lost in Translation." They will air in eight languages around the globe, appearing in such places as the Middle East and Kazakhstan.


The campaign's message: Humanity needs alternative energy sources, but it still needs fossil fuel.


"We say we're an oil company, and we say the world will need oil and natural gas, and we're very direct about that," said Russ Yarrow, manager of external affairs for Chevron. "But we're also saying we need to invest in alternatives in a way that makes economic sense."


Chevron isn't the only company using ads to reshape its reputation.

BP has been telling customers for years that its initials stand for "beyond petroleum." Royal Dutch Shell recently shot a nine-minute film about a caring, dedicated oil engineer and stuck it on DVDs distributed with National Geographic magazines. Chevron has a 2-year-old campaign called "Will you join us?" that discusses long-range energy issues and runs in magazines and newspapers, including The Chronicle.


The trend isn't limited to Big Oil. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has been running print and television ads proclaiming the utility's fondness for renewable energy.


Many environmentalists view such campaigns with suspicion or open disgust. They call the ads greenwash, a thin attempt to make companies look more eco-conscious than they are. The oil companies' main products, after all, release the greenhouse gases that are slowly heating the planet.


In addition, while many oil companies are funding research into biofuels or renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, the level of spending remains small compared with their other investments, environmentalists say.


Chevron, for example, will spend about $2.5 billion on alternative energy in the next three years. But the company earlier this week said it would spend $15 billion over the next three years buying back stock, a move that rewards investors by making the remaining shares more valuable.


"I don't want to be dismissive of what they're doing," said Sierra Club spokesman Josh Dorner. "But if this is really where their priorities are, they should put their money where their mouth is."


Whether the new Chevron ads sway viewers is another question.

The spots tout Chevron's geothermal energy operations in Southeast Asia, the largest in the world. They also highlight the company's success in finding oil hidden under the Gulf of Mexico, in reservoirs so deep they were once considered unreachable. They suggest a balance between renewable energy and fossil fuels.


Will viewers agree? Perhaps not, said Craig Carroll, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the relationship between big business and the media.


"I think the best they can hope for is just to tell their story," he said, adding that the public already sees a lot of information on energy and climate change. "I don't think they'll convince people to see things exactly the way they do."


But Chevron may have to try anyway, he said. The more attention the public pays to energy and global warming, the more important it becomes for oil companies to be seen taking an active role in the debate.


"It certainly works in their advantage to be part of the conversation," Carroll said. "The ones who are more credible are the ones who get in early and stay in the race."


Chevron executives say they know that an advertising campaign, even one this lavish, won't make everyone love them. The company's market research consistently show that some people approve of oil companies and some despise them.


"And it doesn't matter what we say - they're going to feel that way," said Helen Clark, Chevron manager of corporate brand and reputation. "But there's a large faction in the middle that really is open."