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Was Greenpeace’s Shell Hoax Brilliant Or ‘Villainous’? One Of The Guys Behind It All Speaks.

Kashmir Hill, Forbes Staff: 7/19/2012 @ 3:51PM

Was Greenpeace’s Shell Hoax Brilliant Or ‘Villainous’? One Of The Guys Behind It All Speaks.

The reaction to Greenpeace’s hilarious hijacking of Shell Oil’s online identity has been mixed this week. Greenpeace and Yes Lab created a parody “Arctic Ready” website that closely mirrored Shell’s own site talking about drilling in the Arctic. They then created a “ShellisPrepared” Twitter account, purporting to be Shell’s bumbling social media team trying to contain the negative ads being generated by a social media tool on the site. Many of the people who saw the website and Twitter account assumed they were actually created by Shell, and broadcast them on social media as examples of corporate social media gone horribly wrong. Instead they were an example of activist social media sabotage gone viral.

Some people thought it was brilliant. Some people thought it was awful. Some people who fell for the hoax felt snookered. One of my regular readers here called it “juvenile,” the work of “thugs and bullies.” Martin Robbins in The New Statesman was especially critical:

The real villain here is Greenpeace. This is an NGO that thinks it is acceptable to lie to the public, to lie to bloggers and journalists, and to then intimidate writers with threatening emails warning of legal action. This absolutely is not okay. I don’t care if you’re saving the Arctic, rescuing kittens from YouTube’s vicious pet-celebrity training camps, or training pandas to pull famine-ridden children out of earthquake debris; to behave in this deceitful way demonstrates an astonishing amount of contempt for the public – not least for environmentalist supporters who spread their message in good faith only to find themselves forced into embarrassing retractions.

via New Statesman – Epic Shell PR fail? No, the real villains here are Greenpeace.

I talked to Travis Nichols, 33, of the Greenpeace media team, about the success of the campaign and what the organization thinks of the strong reaction. Greenpeace created the “Arctic Ready” website on June 7th to coincide with the release of a staged video of a fake Shell event in the Seattle Space Needle where a fountain display suffered an ‘oil spill’ — which also fooled a ton of people. (Basically be skeptical of any news involving Shell at this point.) The site has been getting a steady stream of visitors since its creation, but suddenly spiked last week, and then officially went viral this week — thanks to the push from the fake Shell social media team Twitter account — garnering over two million page views so far this week. This is a condensed version of our conversation:

Kash: Why do you think people fell for the hoax website again this month — despite the fact that Greenpeace took credit for it last month — allowing it to again go viral?

Nichols: I wish I could take credit for it and say it was by design. I think it has to do with Shell’s actions in the last few days, notably letting a rig go adrift. I wish I had a great reason. I wish I could say we knew the perfect way to make things go viral a second time.

Kash: I think the @ShellisPrepared Twitter account helped a lot. People thought it was really Shell’s social media team.

Nichols: It’s not surprising that a company like Shell would be inept at social media. Most people thought it was credible.

Kash: Twitter has not shut the account down yet. When I reached out to them, they just sent a link to their trademark policy.

Nichols: It must have passed the smell test at Twitter for being parody.

Kash: Why do you think so many visitors to the “Arctic Ready” site think it’s real despite the fact that there’s a photo of a polar bear with another polar bear’s severed head in its jaw on the homepage?

Nichols:Angry Bergs” as a game on the kids site didn’t seem super plausible to us. It takes just a little pushing and you realize it’s supposed to be funny. Visitors to the site want to believe it’s real. There’s some element in all of this where they realize it’s not real but they want it to be real.

Kash: It’s that willful suspension of belief. This is why hoaxes often work. We know it’s too good to be true, but we still want it to be true.

Nichols: Even after people find out it’s not real, they still make ads.

Visitors to the site have used the ad generator tool to make over 10,000 ads. Greenpeace chose one of them to put up on a billboard on a Houston Highway Thursday that leads to Shell’s offices.

Kash: How much did this “Arctic Ready” social media campaign cost?

Nichols: We have not spent very much. For the social media campaign there was no budget. It was about $10,000 to build the website. This has mainly been driven by the enthusiasm of the supporters. It has created a situation where people are paying attention to Shell’s Arctic drilling plans.

Kash: How does this compare to the expense of other Greenpeace campaigns, such as sending a boat out?

Nichols: This is not a very expensive campaign. Using this kind of tactic is less expensive than other kinds of tactics. It’s a strange manner of scale. No one knows the value of these things. I would love to hear if Shell or an independent analyst has any idea how much this has cost Shell. We can pat ourselves on the back and think it really damages Shell financially, but we don’t know.

The campaign doesn’t begin and end with Shell. It’s about saving the Arctic. We started collecting signatures in earnest two weeks ago, and have more than 900,000. That’s a more traditional Greenpeace way of doing things, putting direct pressure on. In the long term campaign, we’ll have to see what effect this has. In the short term, we’re happy people have an outlet to voice their opposition.

Kash: What about the backlash, those who see this as impersonation — and a violation of trademark law — rather than parody, such as those calling you villains?

Nichols: What is a hoax? The idea of a hoax is a group that says it’s something that it’s not. Shell saying it can safely drill in the Arctic and abide by clean air rules and environmental standards is a hoax. Shell is not doing that. Note the rig getting away from it. People wringing their hands over what is an obviously satirical campaign that rubs them the wrong way for a few seconds before they realize it’s fake pales in comparison with what Shell is doing, the hoax they’re perpetuating on the American public. It’s a creative campaign and we’re giving our supporters a voice to tell Shell what they think.

“Arctic Ready” is Shell’s motto. All we’ve done is take their facts and highlighted them. It’s identity correction. It’s important that you don’t lie. You take the facts and put them out without Shell’s spin. They’ve greenwashed their page. We’ve done the opposite. We took the language they used and flipped it. Instead of saying we’re environmentally friendly, we made it that Shell’s excited to do this crazy stuff in the Arctic. And I’m sure they are. We’re just heightening that part of it. It’s like in Spinal Tap where they turn the amp to 11.

At this point in the conversation, Nichols notes that Shell got an injunction against the group this year.

Nichols: We can’t get within a kilometer of any of their assets. Since we can’t break that injunction, this is part of how we’re approaching them. Though, if there hadn’t been an injunction, it’s not like we wouldn’t have taken this approach.

Kash: Why the focus on Shell?

Nichols: The rest of the oil industry is lining up behind them to follow them into the Arctic.

Kash: Are you worried about alienating potential supporters who don’t like the approach you’ve taken?

Nichols: I do know we’re reaching new audiences. Being on Reddit. We’re reaching people we haven’t reached in the past. People out of the woodwork, saying, ‘Normally I don’t like Greenpeace but this is different.’


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