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Shell and its Advertising Agency need to think again…

The decision of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to castigate Shell (again!) for it’s misleading corporate advertising is further evidence that Shell is utterly slipshod in its monitoring of copy and creative proposals from its advertising agency. Having managed Advertising Agencies for Shell in various locations around the world over the years I know that the client MUST ensure that the copy is legal, decent honest and truthful – you cannot leave that to the Agency. This is not to criticise agencies, but to clearly define what is their role – and what is the client’s.

The last few years have seen a surfeit of corporate advertising initiatives by oil companies which have been at best misleading and at worst (as in this recent Shell case) downright dishonest. I have drawn attention here and elsewhere to the disingenuous ads that Shell has been running about its Gas to Liquids (GTL) business. A whole costly campaign has been running which seeks to suggest that Shell is in the GTL business because it cares about the environment and that the driver of the GTL initiative is somehow altruistic. This campaign has been characterised by gross overclaims about the significance of GTL in reducing city air pollution – even implying that there are major cities around the world today that are less polluted because of Shell’s supply in them of lower emission GTL products. This is nonsense, and will remain so for the very long term. Shell is in GTL to make a buck, just as it is in Tar Sands to make a buck. Incidentally GTL is no more “sustainable” than Tar sands exploitation – both rely on the processing of depleting hydrocarbon resources.

Back to the client/agency relationship. The first thing that Shell should do is to brief its agency that claims in ads must not just be verifiable but must be correctly perceived by readers or viewers. And the agency should in its part challenge Shell that the briefing that they receive is verifiable and honest. The GTL campaign is clearly intended to create a perception in the target group’s mind that Shell, through GTL, is in the forefront of the business of converting gas into liquids (which is true) but also that the driver for this is a public-spirited environmentally driven imperative (which it certainly is not!).

The agency is not doing its job unless it challenges the substance of Shell desired communications positions well before any creative executions are developed. I wonder if they did this in the two cases where the ASA has forced the withdrawal of Shell’s misleading ads? But I have sympathy for the agency in this and other cases. These are pretty technical areas and to a significant extent an advertising agency has to rely on the fact that the briefings its receives are accurate. All advertising is selective and it is common practice of course, to accentuate the positives. But the rules require that in doing this the ad as a whole must not mislead. Shell is developing GTL because it has the technology to do so and because it has negotiated a commercially viable deal in Qatar that ensures that a positive income stream from the project will result. That’s business and it’s a very good business deal. What it is not, and never has been and never will be, is Shell operating in GTL because it believes in the environmental benefits that will accrue. Those benefits, small scale though they are, are real. But it is utterly misleading for Shell to suggest, as they have, that these benefits are the principal reason behind Shell’s investment.

There is an obvious lack of checks and balances in Shell’s corporate advertising. They have now been wrapped over the knuckles twice by the ASA and they have been roundly criticised by the environmental lobby for their continued predilection for “greenwash”. It is time for Shell to reconsider their position – and for their advertising agency to demand that the briefings they receive do not result in the agency developing creative executions that are false.

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