Oil Companies Are Trying to Rebrand Themselves on Social Media

It’s almost as if they don’t want you to know how much they love oil.

April 01, 2019
Five of the largest publicly traded oil companies: BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Total

Jim Tanner/REUTERS/Newscom

Like most other writers I know, I spend entirely too much time on Twitter when I should be getting actual work done.

Rarely does something appear in my feed that’s perfectly germane to whatever topic I’m writing about. But amazingly, that’s exactly what happened a few days ago, when I clicked on my screen’s open Twitter tab and was greeted by a slick, colorful, unmistakably upbeat one-minute ad from Royal Dutch Shell.

In its video, the oil and gas giant touts its dedication to pursuing renewable energy and lowering carbon emissions. Witness: Expansive wind farms atop verdant, gently rolling hills! Fields of shimmering photovoltaics soaking up sunlight beneath bright blue skies! Happy families strolling along tree-lined paths, finally freed from worrying about whether their household electricity consumption is hastening humanity’s demise!

Algorithms being what they are, I assume this particular ad targeted me because of the large number of people I follow on Twitter who write about or work to fight climate change—or perhaps the even larger number of online searches I routinely conduct using keywords like renewables or clean energy. Whatever prompted it, the ad captivated me, but probably not for the reasons that Shell intended.

I was struck by the uncanny timing of it all. Literally moments before, I’d been reading about how Shell and other major oil companies have been strategically using social media to burnish their images as forward-thinking champions of renewable energy—while at the same time working far more vigorously, and far less publicly, to preserve the fossil-fuel status quo and stifle meaningful climate action. According to a new report published by InfluenceMap, a United Kingdom–based watchdog group, the world’s five biggest publicly traded oil and gas multinationals—Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and Total—have together spent well over a billion dollars in the past several years sending mixed messages regarding climate change, as they try to “maintain public support on the issue while holding back binding policy.”

Courtesy InfluenceMap.org

Included in this billion-dollar expenditure, InfluenceMap says, is $195 million spent on an intensive branding campaign designed to convince stakeholders and the general public that these companies “are on board with ambitious action on climate.” (The smiley-face, pro-renewables Shell ad definitely seems to have been drawn from this line item.) But just like the foreign agents that disrupted our country’s last election by spreading misinformation on social media, oil companies, too, are making sure that they have an ad for every target audience. In the weeks leading up to last year’s midterms, ExxonMobil alone spent more than $2 million on targeted Facebook and Instagram ads “promoting the benefits of increased fossil fuel production and supporting successful opposition to several key climate related ballot initiatives.”

Courtesy InfluenceMap.org

Meanwhile, as their ad buyers keep busy placing two very different kinds of content in front of two very different sets of eyeballs, behind the scenes the Big Five have been acting as one on the issue they care about most: expanding and protecting their dirty, highly lucrative fossil fuel operations. InfluenceMap calculates that these companies currently spend as much as $200 million a year on lobbying efforts “designed to control, delay, or block binding climate-motivated policy.” Their tactics have proved remarkably successful of late: Combined annual sales for the Big Five in 2018 was more than $1 trillion, with $55 billion of that recorded as profit, according to InfluenceMap. The organization goes on to reveal that these businesses plan to spend $114 billion, combined, on capital investment in 2019.

What percentage of that $114 billion do you suppose will be dedicated to pursuing low-carbon sources of energy? Would you believe a little more than 3 percent? The final amount comes out to about $3.6 billion, according to InfluenceMap. Divide that by five, and you get an average of about $700 million per oil company for clean energy in the coming year. And while that may sound like a lot, you might also note that it’s the same amount Shell and a handful of coinvestors recently agreed to pay for just one new gas-fired power plant in Brazil. Practically pocket change.

Being seduced by savvy ads that pop into your Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram feed is easy enough. (Just ask the voters of Michigan and Wisconsin.) But next time you see one of these ads touting the green-tinted triumphs of a giant fossil fuel multinational—and if you’re reading this column right now, you probably will, since you’re exactly the type of person they’re trying to reach—keep the aforementioned numbers in mind. Those ads are slick, all right. Why wouldn’t they be? They’re dripping with oil.

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