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Paddy Briggs: More on ‘Clearing the Air’ image

Friday, February 22, 2008

“Clearing the Air”

Further thoughts on Shell’s misleading advertising

My recent article criticising Shells’ “Clearing the Air” GTL advertising campaign has generated a (mostly) healthy debate here and elsethere. I hope that those who have criticised my piece are now satisfied (a) That there are no inaccuracies in it (b) That I am certainly not anti GTL or anti any other development which will mean improvements to our well-being and to the environment in the future. But as someone who has been active in the world of advertising and communications for more than twenty years I believe that it is legitimate that I pass judgment on advertising which is as ill-thought-through and as misleading as this campaign.

To add to what I have already said about “Clearing the Air” let me quote and comment on the copy of the TV commercial (TVC) currently running in the UK. The copy runs as follows:

“As the air in the world’s cities becomes more polluted are we running out of options? To help solve problems like these we need creative thinkers with different ideas. Like starting with cleaner Natural Gas not Oil to create a gas to liquids fuel. Find out how one company [Shell] is helping to reduce city emissions by up to 40% on diesel vehicles.”

There is also an on screen caption at the end of the TVC which says:

In cars tested to May 2007 the typical range was 26% to 40%.

Let us just dissect this copy and how why it is misleading. The intention is to suggest strongly that the reason for the development of GTL technology by Shell was to “…help solve problems” like the fact that “the air in the world’s cities becomes more polluted”. The reason for the development of GTL technology was to produce middle distillate products from Gas in those (very) special situations where it was felt that conventional Gas reserves exploitation could be augmented by the conversion of some of the Gas to liquids – and where such conversion could be economic. The only commercial scale plant in operation at present is the 14,700 barrels per day facility in Bintulu Malaysia – this is equivalent to less than 3% of Malaysia’s total oil consumption. Whilst it is true that if the GTL product is consumed in Malaysia then it could perhaps have a miniscule effect on air pollution – but 97% of Malaysia’s growing oil consumption will be of conventional oil products from oil refineries. Malaysia’s annual growth in oil consumption far exceeds the annual production of the Bintulu plant.

In a few years time the much larger Qatar GTL plant will come on stream and this will produce 140,000 barrels per day. This will be roughly equivalent to Qatar’s total oil consumption in 2010 so it is reasonable to assume that much of the product will be consumed in Qatar – although some will have to be traded (no gasoline will come from the GTL plant so this local demand will continue to have to be ex-oil refinery). The traders will no doubt try to secure a price premium for the environmentally friendlier NGL middle distillate compared with conventional gas oil. If we look at this at a Middle East level then in 2010 the region is expected to consume 12.2 million barrels per day of oil in that year so the Qatar plant, if it is on stream by then, could provide just 1% of regional oil consumption if it is all sold in the region (including in Qatar). 99% of the Middle East regions’ oil consumption will be of ex-refinery products.

I mention these figures just to illustrate how misleading Shell’s advertising is. The claim is that Shell’s GTL “…is helping to reduce city emissions by up to 40% on diesel vehicles.” At a micro level this is no doubt true. Any one vehicle does perhaps indeed produce 26% to 40% less emissions on GTL compared with conventional diesel. The point is that there are hardly any vehicles on the roads anywhere in the world doing this and this will remain the case for the very long term indeed! Even in Qatar the beneficial effect will be small and across the Middle East region as a whole (if that is where the product is sold) it will be negligible.

GTL is a good thing and it would be churlish to deny that over the very long term it will have a place in the world’s oil consumption mix. But the “Clearing the Air” advertising wishes to suggest that Shell is at present “helping to reduce city emissions by up to 40%” with GTL – this is simply not true! Even in Malaysia where the only producing plant is operating the production is so small as to have no measurable effect.

Advertising has to be “Legal, decent, honest and truthful”. “Clearing the Air” fails this test – Shell should withdraw the campaign.

© Paddy Briggs February 2008


Former Shell Exec Paddy Briggs comments on the article: Shell launches promotional film in its global brand campaign

Paddy Briggs worked for Shell for 37 years during the last fifteen of which he was responsible for Brand management in a number of appointments. He was the winner of the “Shell/Economist” writing prize (internal) in 2001. Paddy retired from Shell in 2002 to form the brand consultancy BrandAware ™ and to write and speak on brand and reputation matters. He is also active as a director of training courses on brand and reputation management. Paddy is also an active sports journalist and a member of the “Sports Journalists Association” and the “Cricket Writers’ Club”. He has a regular weekly column in the “Bahrain Tribune” and was previously a columnist in the “Khaleej Times” and the “Emirates Evening Post”. In September 2006 he was appointed Sports Editor of “AME Info” the UAE based news and information website. Paddy’s book of light verse “Jumeira Jane” was published in Dubai in 2001 and the first edition print run of 5000 copies was sold out.

For Paddy’s website go to… and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

1 Comment on “Paddy Briggs: More on ‘Clearing the Air’”

  1. #1 goblok6969
    on Mar 2nd, 2008 at 06:15


    GtL is about vision of which you seem to be lacking. Take the analogy with LNG. Brunei LNG was a huge risk with many naysayers like you back in 1970. Now it is a huge industry, very important in terms of energy security for countries across the world, is a low carbon alternative to coal or oil and has also displaced some nuclear power in Japan. Meantime as technology has advanced the capital costs from building LNG plants per tonne of production have dropped by some 40%.

    Great things start with small beginnings. GtL could be one – who knows. It is all a case of taking calculated risks on what you believe will be a win / win / win for the environment / your company / your stakeholders respectively.

    Personally I would rather see the glass as half full rather than being negative about everything Shell does …

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