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Ethical Corporation: Shell’s feel good campaign smells bad

A new slick promo from Shell is all gloss, cleverly avoiding the big energy and climate questions, says Ollie Willis of 2CV Research.

Feeling queasy about companies attempting to humanise their cold pursuit of profit isn’t a new or irregular sensation.

For sheer chutzpah, though, you would have to go some to beat Shell’s awesomely cynical and manipulative “Eureka” story – available currently on Shell’s website and on YouTube. It is hard to think of anything that has made me this uneasy since “The Blair Witch Project”.

The acting is excellent; the film is brilliantly shot; the campaign (though it clearly does not want to be thought of as any such thing) is extremely of-the-moment, what with a spot up on YouTube and a call for audience interaction. It is the model of contemporary brand communications.

Cynical manipulation

It is also, unless my understanding of the oil industry and global warming is completely flawed, a sickening stunt. The film tells the story of engineer Jaap Van Ballegooijen, who through heart-warming interactions with his son and a moment of revelation around a milk shake invents a new way of extracting black gold from a remote Asian oil field.

If we were to watch this film with uncritical eyes, what might we take out from its homespun tale? Well, that one of the world’s largest companies is actually full of real human beings, with problems just like you! And me! And that Shell is full of “inventor mavericks” who will provide brilliant innovations for extracting oil in a more environmentally sound fashion.

We certainly would not assume that oil is going to be in increasingly short supply. Or that we should start looking to reduce and find alternative types of energy. Or that using oil has a disastrous effect on our carbon emissions and in turn on global warming.

Shell our saviour?

Now as someone whose grip of science is not exactly vice-like, all of these fears may just be unfounded. Perhaps Shell really will save us all.

But books such as (ex oil man) Jeremy Leggett’s “Half Gone”, George Monbiot’s “Heat” and Jonathan Porritt’s “Capitalism As If the World Matters” – not to mention the views of the UK government’s chief scientist who describes global warming as the biggest threat to humanity – all pose Shell some very serious questions.

“Shell should be developing serious five, ten and 20 year plans for moving from oil to alternative energy”

For the company to address the threats of oil depletion and global warming with a schmaltzy homily like Eureka feels like using an episode of MTV’s teen soap “Laguna Beach” to tackle problems of youth crime and alienation.

If claims about global warming (now almost universally accepted) and peak oil (more disputed) are untrue, they should be using some of their billions to tell us straight, loud and clear. If they are real, then Shell should be developing serious five, ten and 20 year plans for moving from oil to alternative energy.

BP have at least made a start here, claiming they will invest $8 billion over the next ten years to produce electricity from solar, wind, hydrogen and natural gas.

They should also be talking to consumers about what changes this will mean in their own lives. The tone of Eureka is a bedtime story – “don’t worry about what you see in the news; everything is going to be alright”.

What we need are more messages like Marks & Spencer’s’ Plan A – advertising that talks to us as fellow adults, that sets out how the company will fundamentally alter their way of doing business, and which invites us to make changes as individuals to our own lives.

Resource suggestions – Legal implications for drink driving.  which is a visualizer for the impact of transportation. Guide for new drivers.


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