The Oil Industry’s Message to You

Yves here. While Adam McKay and Tom Neuburger have a strong case that the Chevron ad they lambaste amounts to extreme and offensive psychological greenwashing (associating the oil major with green fields, babies, pristine nature scenes), it’s not as if only slightly milder versions aren’t a staple of American commercials. My mother had an appetite for “old people” TV. That demographic is too down market to attract fossil fuel behemoth ads. However, the drug company pitches are close to saturation level. They always have good looking people, definitely not fashion model but character-actor-level attractive. And they are all happy. Some giddily happy, even as the narrator reads out side effects like convulsive muscle movements (“which may be permanent”), increased risk of stroke, and death.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies

Today’s piece is more exercise than explanation.

I’d like you to take a quick journey with me. I’d like to see if what’s true for me is also true for you. If it is, I think you’ll be as surprised as I was at how striking the realization is.

The exercise goes like this. We’re going to play the video below twice — once without sound, and once with sound. You’ll find the commercial has two separate meanings, depending on whether the sound is on or not, and depending on whether your soundless listen is your first.

Experiencing The Ad in Two Ways

I encountered the ad embedded in the following tweet from Adam McKay, and I took it to be, as he tells us below, a feel-good ad for Chevron.

First, watch with the sound on mute. As the images roll by your eyes, what goes through your mind? How would you describe what you see? (My answers are at the bottom of this piece.)​

In particular, ask these questions:

1. Assuming the ad is from Chevron (which you would do the first time through), what are they trying to say explicitly with these images?

2. Assuming the ad is from Chevron, what are they inadvertently telling you?

Now watch with the sound turned on. Since you’ve already seen the text at the end of the ad, you know the twist. But you also know the images. As you it watch again, ask:

  1. Does the voice-over connect with the images displayed?
  2. Is the voice-over effective?

My Answers

Are you finished? My answers from listening in silent mode:

1. What is Chevron openly telling me when it broadcasts ads like these?

Answer: “Look at these beautiful shots of your wonderful world. We’re wonderful too, we caring Chevron people. We’re helping preserve your world, so you can be happy.”

2. What is Chevron inadvertently telling me through ads like these?

It couldn’t have been more obvious, at least to me. I assumed on first listen that this was Chevron propaganda, and this is the message I got:

“Linger and look at the world we’re taking away: Balloons in a happy sky. The bee-filled air. Wind on a young girl’s face as she swings in a yard. A dad who loves her, in a world that cares.

“Say goodbye to it all. We are monsters. After a certain point, after our chief executives are dead, your children will never experience these things again. But thanks for the cash; our own kids will need it to keep your kids in line.”

And then, after listening again with the sound turned up, the ad let me down. It’s a very different experience than the soundless version — almost too on- the-nose — with a less powerful aftermath than the aboriginal rage I felt as I watched the first time.

I was struck, though, by this section of spoken word (emphasis added):

We at Chevron … have billions and billions of dollars to pay for this commercial time. This cheesy footage. And this bullshit music. All so you’ll be lulled into a catatonic state that makes you forget one singular fact. Chevron is actively murdering you. Every day.

They got that right. The modern ad and PR industry is an evil thing: self-righteous, self-deceptive, manipulative. Pathological and deadly. And the worst of it is, their ads almost always work.

Until they don’t and there’s a reckoning.

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    1. NorfolkSceptic

      The West, Germany in particular, are starting to find out just how important oil/gas are to their standard of living.

      And to think they laughed at Trump when he pointed out how their government’s schizophrenic Energy/foreign policies were.

    1. griffen

      I like that, an excellent tie in. We will pipe in our carcinogenics directly into your homes. Also whether it is Big Oil or the rapacious online presence of Amazon, what is the distinction to draw among these dominant corporate entities. I immediately thought of Amazon, and their “AWS” commercials. Vomit.

      Closing thought:
      Its dog eat dog, it’s rat eat rat. “Boom Like That’ by Mark Knopfler.

      1. NorfolkSceptic

        If the public took the trouble to take Science in school, up to 16 years old, they would understand the complications of living in a sophisticated world with high standards of living.

        1. hunkerdown

          They wouldn’t understand why the world is sophisticated and image-obsessed, nor how to change that state of the world around them, without a course of study in Psychology, which they should also take from K to 12. Which is exactly why none will be generally forthcoming.

          1. GramSci

            My vote is for requiring Primate Behavior 101. Until the People understand we’re a race of hairless apes, they won’t understand how their buttons are being pushed. Kids used to sort of learn this on the farm, but that was BD (before Darwin).

        2. Monte Mckenzie

          america’s education is in decline ! every year fewer HS grads go to university & even fewer take STEM grad classes !
          How can that help America get better?

          1. Sailor Bud

            Whose ‘better’ are we talking about?

            A common conservative talking point is “you live better than a king did 400 years ago,” where they get to define better for me, somehow. It’s like telling me that their favorite beer is the best beer, and that I have to agree it truly is. According to my own tastes and current mode of living, I’m fairly certain I don’t live the life of Louis XIV, and that he lived better than I do.

            Funny enough, I’ve also read enough primary history to know that less royal people have been happy (and unhappy) at all stages of technology in history, and that its charms aren’t what defines ‘better’ for everyone. I’ve read my Natural History of Selbourne, and I know Gilbert White had a pleasant existence before cars and Star Trek, even with all the horrors of not living with modern convenience and medicine.

            I also know that your STEM wizards have created what I consider a hellhole, filled with mountains of trash, dystopian smoke stacks billowing foul gases into the air in front of my own eyes, cars everywhere, sweet summer days punctuated by lawnmower sounds, and total dependence on these systems of consumer waste. They also fiercely defend the construction of this nastiness. Meanwhile, I shop by foot and bicycle, and buy less and less stuff each year.

            Roald Dahl wrote, in his book Boy, that it took five weeks (!) to get from Cardiff to China in 1935. That’s not even 100 years ago, and look at the globe-trotting air travel trashos we have now, complaining about a two-hour layover on their day ride halfway round the planet. Gross.

            Sorry, but I want humanity to slow down again. I think the Star Trek future sounds okay if we can escape this rock and get to Rigel IV, but while we’re stuck here, your STEM engineers and capitalists have created a Borg world.

            I don’t blame the kids for going elsewhere with their learning.

            I guess I’d be on your side if the businessmen, engineers, and politicians hadn’t done all that nastiness, but they keep doing it, and I suspect lots of kids see it too.

            Anyway, glad I’m into piano more than science, though it will screw me in the end because it’s not practical. I wish kids cared more about Chopin than Elon Musk, but I’m just not normal, so forgive me.

  1. LawnDart

    The modern ad and PR industry is an evil thing: self-righteous, self-deceptive, manipulative. Pathological and deadly.

    The deception with intent to manipulate us into accepting things that are against our interests or beliefs would seem to me the crux of the issue.

    I think that it is critical to understand, after one realizes that they have been lied to, the intent or purpose behind the lie.

    One notable lie that immediately comes to mind is actually a lie about a lie, Dr. Fauci’s “noble lie,” although I guess it is noble if it is our nobles who tell these, you know– because semantics, class privilege and all that horseshit.

    The USA is a reflection of what we have chosen to accept, and no wonder much of the world looks to us as a toxic relationship best avoided if possible: in dealing with USA, the only trust is the trust that some harm will come to you. Look at our advertising: a careful eye will discern that we even broadcast our intentions!

  2. Rodeo Clownfish

    I think it’s unfair to blame it all on the oil suppliers. If there were no demand, they would be out of business. The author says the oil companies are actively murdering us every day. I think they load the gun, but we pull the trigger ourselves.

    I compare it to the war on drugs, like cocaine, which has always been a war on suppliers. Never a war on the rich Americans who actually pay for the nose candy. Put a few of them in jail and drug use will go away down.

    If we want to stop burning oil, we have to drive down the demand for it. Easier said than done, I know.

      1. ambrit

        A classic example of “rugged individualism,” just like our much vaunted, but subtly sabotaged “personal risk calculations” regarding catching Covid.
        Strictly an outcome of Predatory Capitalism.
        To shift the blame to the “pushers” would be, *gasp!*, Socialism!! [At this point even cynical old me must admit that the subject has escaped the bounds of irony or sarcasm and descended willy nilly into the realms of Right Thinking Magical Ideation.]
        Stay safe!

    1. Mike

      We almost all live and operate within our societal system, not outside of it. Major change will have to come from a top down, regulatory approach. So if these companies are lobbying our government (who can provide the top down regulation) and they are clearly brainwashing folks as shown in commercials this is making fun of (if it’s a concerted campaign) then it should be treated like enemy action.

      Big oil has had an active, heavy hand shaping the trajectory of our country since the Rockefeller days, they should be taken very seriously.

      1. Kengferno

        All this is true, but there’s also other ways to skin cats. Gay rights, and by extension, same sex marriage were distinctly ground-up approaches, consisting of ongoing societal pressure through protests and street actions. Not saying there’s a one to one corollary between them, but it is possible that direct action against big oil and our dependence on it through more street level action (protesting, boycotting, alternative transportation methods) could move the needle.

        1. AndrewJ

          And how much were gay rights and same-sex marriage taken up by Democratic politicians and organizations as a culture war weapon to win votes, but ultimately not cost their donors? It’s different with organizing against global interests that stand to lose tons of money if fossil fuels are left in the ground.

    2. semper loquitur

      The world has been shaped, intentionally, by the petroleum industry to make it nearly impossible to live without it. Take “car culture” here in the US. How many billions of dollars have been spent since the creation of the automobile to make them desirable in the eyes of the credulous? How much machismo has been splooged out to make young men think of cars as an extension of their masculinity? How much “empowerment” has been off-gassed to make young ladies think that a car is a symbol of equality?

      Our cities and towns are designed around the automobile while public transit languishes, strangled in the cradle by the auto industry. Automobiles are viewed as a form of freedom, as someone here once commented driving is the only freedom some people get to experience in their lives, a comment that haunts me. And they are, when other options have been nullified.

      So to blame the end-user is to pretend that there is some sort of level playing field in which the decision to walk away from fossil fuels exists. Like those kids who block the highways, indiscriminately inconveniencing everyone to “raise awareness” when in fact they are alienating the very people they will need on their side if they are ever to seriously challenge the petro-tocracy. (I know those organizations have been infiltrated by spooks and what-not, I wonder if such actions are instigated by operatives who want to further alienate the public from anyone challenging the status-quo.) To blame the end user is to imagine that their consciousness hasn’t been intimately shaped by the will of the petroleum industry, for decade upon decade, generation after generation.

      I don’t know what the answer is or if there is one. Most likely, we and the planet in it’s current state are fu(ked. The petroleum industry has untold wealth to fight the war for the mind as well as the backing of the state to crack skulls if the $hit really hits the fan.

  3. aftonsky

    I did the exercise, and I honestly thought that this is displaying the human world that oil companies build.
    All those happy well fed people of all ages with lots of free time on their hand and the ability to travel to nice places are the creatures of modern industrialization.
    Without oil all this will go away.
    I am not sure what kind of world will come after we stopped fossile fuels, maybe it will be very nice in its way. But I know this: the people in the ad will not be part of it, neither will I.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The pretty shot of a pristine ocean floor with lots of colorful fish is not part of the world oil production created. Neither are the other nature shots.

      1. ambrit

        I remember during the Gulf Oil Platform Disaster watching a video feed from the sea floor adjacent to the well head. The swirling clouds of escaping oil certainly did not look like anything I had ever seen on a Jacques Cousteau program. The damage done to the deep Gulf ecosystem was profound. The Gulf still hasn’t fully “recovered.”
        During the “cleanup,” we lived at the mouth of the Pearl River. On a ‘bad’ day you could smell the oil floating on the surface, even though it was miles out to sea. That was a distinctive odour. One could not mistake it.

        1. Rod

          Thanks for this Yves. And ambrit for remembering.
          The concept really channeled Abie Hoffman–who really had it right on what reaches people. In an Entertaiment Society, this messaging works better than screaming(though f**king up traffic will, and must, still have its place–imo–because that’s where we’re at).

          CNN–back in the day(5 year look-back)–on the Horizon Disaster:

          watching it again, with or without sound, still racks my emotions–as it should
          Like the video above does, with or without soundonly different.
          My personal face slapping stomach dropping get off your ass image is at 1:05.
          Inserting image cuts from that into messaging like McKays probably would kick it up a notch.

          A friend in 350 sent McKay’s tweet around a couple of weeks ago and after watching it thought:
          “Yea, That needs distribution–and wide distribution”
          Without the sound i think the Tag Line punches above it’s weight. With the sound on I got strangely flamed when they called my dogs –ratty-assed–but still thought the surprise slap around was worth its weight in oil.
          I almost wished I had the ‘Social Media’ so i could spread it myself–but i don’t–so i sent it to everyone I knew that did in hopes they would. With some thanks back it went down the rabbit hole.
          The enemy and end is closing. Ammo is low. A knife is at the ready. And I am gathering rocks and debris to back that up. There can not be any retreat.

          Now we need the same type of missing messaging about what IS possible in a future with way less fossil fuels.

        2. Jeremy Grimm

          To this day, I refuse to purchase gasoline or anything I know originates from British Petroleum.

      2. t

        Must be POVs from a fossil fuel powered yacht enjoyed by a happy family in the world oil companies built!

      3. JW

        Absolutely correct.
        However the environment ‘in general’ improves as the economic well being of the population increases. ‘In general’ obviously includes downsides as well as upsides. Its pretty incontrovertible that employing low entropy energy sources such as oil have been fundamental to the improvement of economic well being.
        So the ad is totally naff and misleading, but the underlying message is nevertheless true.

        1. AndrewJ

          It’s been fundamental to improving “economic well-being”… by borrowing energy from the long-distant past. Dumping fossil energy into the present comes with a bill that may very well erase all those gains, and leave humanity worse off.

        2. KSL

          However the environment ‘in general’ improves as the economic well being of the population increases.

          Isn’t this still heavily debated? The environmental Kuznets curve has had mountains of criticisms since this supposed straight forward trend was thought up 30 years ago.

  4. Dave in Austin

    I’ve thought a law incorporating all adds into the contract with the ad messages given precedence would help. I’magine a drug maker trying to convince a jury that the “warnings” were given the same message as the visual message?

    And the same goes for type size in every ad warning- either use the same type size as in the rest of the ad or risk a jury declaring the obvious- this was intended to be concealed.

  5. semper loquitur

    I thought the video had a lot more impact with the sound off. The narrator was right on, of course, but once he started to speak I suspect a lot of people would have thought “Oh, some Greenie do-gooder telling me how to live my life again.” and moved on. I would have provided an uplifting soundtrack to the images and then let the text hit like a slap across the face. I wouldn’t have given the video an actual human for people to reject.

    I think there is another, even more insidious, layer to this. It’s the bastardization of those images by advertising and marketing. Who here hasn’t been inundated all their lives with similar tableaus of laughing children and coral reefs and flocks of birds on the wing, then hit with a symbol for Monsanto or whoever. In essence, it’s turning all the world into a commercial for Corporation Inc. It’s not just that they are trying to link themselves to those images, I think on another level they are deforming those images.

  6. Wukchumni

    There was a fellow with a sign that read: ‘Stop $10 a Gallon Gas!’ who was in front of Wal*Mart in Visalia the other day, getting petitions from shoppers and frankly he had droves of them, all of whom had driven to the store.

    He had the now familiar ‘I Did That’ with a head shot of pretty boy floyd, er Newsom pointing towards the message.

    So, it was all political and slanted far right as that’s what you get in Godzone, but I was taken by those wanting to sign his pithy petition.

    Face it, we’re all in this together, all dependent upon oil (except for those in NYC who famously don’t drive) to get around, and its a dirty business that to the oil companies credit, have made the process of procuring it almost care-free.

    I park my car next to the pump and pull an oil-based credit card from my wallet, insert it into an oil-based machine that allows me to access it via an oil-based hose and nozzle, and within a few minutes, have transferred about 130 pounds of highly combustible fluid into the gas tank of my car with not a drop spilled or even smelled, slick eh?

    As if their marketing to us wouldn’t be as slick?

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      It is too easy to blame the oil companies for our fondness for cars and the many products derived from Petroleum. True, both the oil cartels and the automobile cartels with steel, glass, and rubber did conspire to dismantle and kneecap mass transit throughout this country. But if gasoline were cheap — say $0.25 per gallon [as circa 1960s] and cars were reliable and cost less than $2k, — even allowing for inflation in these prices — who would prefer the mass-transit available at that time to driving a car? Who in L.A. circa 1960 would prefer the red-car, if it still existed, to using the freeways to get around? For that matter, who would prefer to live in the urban apartments available at that time to living in the suburbs and commuting? I am not suggesting there were not considerable efforts to assure that cars would be chosen over mass-transit or other means of getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’. We were lead in the choices we made … but we made those choices … and continue to make them.

      1. Wukchumni

        The Los Angeles-to-Long Beach passenger rail line served the longest, from July 4, 1902, until April 9, 1961.

        The last Red Car ran on about the day I blasted into inner space and a few days later Yuri blasted into outer space.

        Personal cars have been great and I love a road trip, but have contributed greatly to climate change and our detriment.

        That said, i’m not giving mine up all that easily…

  7. Jeremy Grimm

    Industrial Society is built upon the stored energy in fossil fuels and so far, no substitute has been found to replace them when they run out. Blaming the end-user or blaming the producers does not escape from this essential conundrum. Even so, there is considerable blame to cast upon Capitalist Industry. The petroleum industry, auto industry, most industry per se, seeks to maximize profits. Waste and planned obsolescence help to maximize profits. In mere centuries Humankind has burned through, wasting much, of its great inheritance of Fossil Fuels, accumulated over so many millions of years. That legacy could have lasted much longer, perhaps long enough to find a happier solution than casting blame. I believe many of us are all too eager to adopt the wasteful ways advocated, promoted, and engineered by Industry. I believe there is plenty of blame to share.

    Commercials are a tool serving the Industry in its efforts to speed what amounts to the collapse of Industrial Society. Green-washing commercials are offensive, bold-faced lies. With so much money involved, it is hard to tell how green even the Green New Deal proposals might be.

    1. Rod

      Thanks for commenting.
      You bring up two seperate but related things that can further, positively, this forums discussion:
      Industrial Society is built upon the stored energy in fossil fuels and so far…
      In mere centuries Humankind has burned through, wasting much, of its great inheritance of Fossil Fuels, accumulated over so many millions of years.
      (bold my emphasis)

      I am often stunned by the capacity of restorative power our natural world can manifest if given a chance.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        No need to thank me for commenting. I comment because I feel compelled.

        I too am stunned by, and feel great comfort knowing what “restorative power our natural world can manifest” — however I am not sure how that relates to my comment. I have little doubts about the ability of the restorative powers of the natural world to repair the many grievous wounds with which Humankind has stricken the natural world. But I am puzzled how that restorative power could manifest to deal with the conundrum facing Humankind.

        I believe the wealth of Fossil Fuels Humankind inherited was a one-time deal. Perhaps non-biodegradable plastics might in the passing of time offer some pallid, faint echo of the products and processes that created the ancient stores of energy wealth. Lignin, not unlike plastic, was not biodegradable until ages after plants and trees appeared and proliferated on the Earth using lignin to stiffen their structures. I strongly suspect the once long, long ago, non-biodegradable components of plants and trees are a large component of the oil, coal, and natural gas that our Society is built upon.

  8. paul.w

    I remember when gasoline was $4.50 a gallon in 2010. I was going to buy a house at the time. I found a house 4 miles from where I work. I had a short commute, which I enjoyed since I hate driving. I had to change jobs 5 years ago. Now, 20 minute commute. Most people would say that is still short. It would cost me about 50 thousand dollars to move the 20 miles to be closer to my present job. Selling this house, buying the other house. Moving costs, taxes etc.. So I drive 20 minutes.
    I remember seeing an anvil on the floor at a tool discount store awhile back. It was $40 dollars. The anvil weighed about 75 lbs. The price is about what the cost of the iron to make it would be in the USA. That anvil was shipped 6000 miles to sit on the floor of that store.
    In 2010 you couldn’t give away a 10 mpg SUV or truck. Economy cars were selling like hot cakes. Alternative energy companies in the stock market were booming. Then the price of gasoline started going back down and it all faded away.
    I remember reading an essay at the time that said the cost of oil is $11 a gallon if you include all the external costs. He called for taxing the price of gasoline to keep it high when it would naturally decrease due to lower demand due to higher prices.
    If the taxes on gasoline continued from then to now and gasoline was $10 a gallon adjusted for inflation, peoples behavior would change.

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