Revealed: Fossil Fuel Giants Are Using British Influencers to go Viral

Yves here. I wish we have more of this sort of investigation, not just in the climate arena but generally. Anyone who has attained the status of “influencer” is a public figure and can’t claim to have an expectation of privacy. Whether their views are their own or are paid advertisements ought to be a subject of disclosure, not unlike the way some media outlets feature articles clearly labeled as “sponsored content”. But I doubt you’ll see much change in conduct until some naming and shaming winds up denting some of these brand images.

By Dimitris Dimitriadis, Joey Grostern and Sam Bright. Originally published at DeSmogBlog

Oil and gas supermajors including Shell and BP are using UK influencers to push false solutions to the climate crisis and manufacture a more family friendly image, DeSmog can reveal.

The influencers have included a popular former BBC presenter, a polar explorer, and an exasperated father of five who needs a break and finds it in the form of BP’s rewards app.

The campaigns have been deployed across a number of social media platforms and are part of a global effort to give “millennials a reason to connect emotionally” with oil and gas firms, and to tackle their perception as “the bad guys”.

DeSmog analysed examples of more than 100 influencers being paid to promote fossil fuel firms worldwide since 2017, from the US to Malaysia, in campaigns that have reached billions of people.

Our analysis uncovered promotional material from two PR firms representing Shell, boasting of the success of their online advertising. One of the PR companies claimed that content fronted by UK inventor Colin Furze reached nearly a billion people, while another claimed that a campaign with explorer Robert Swan OBE made Shell’s audience “31 percent more likely to believe” that the oil company is “committed to cleaner fuels”.

This comes as major polluters are increasingly deploying digital tactics to detract from negative headlines about their record profits and decades-long contribution to climate change.

In 2020, leaked internal documents from BP showed how the firm sought to “reach influencers” in order to become “more relatable, passionate, and authentic” and “win the trust of the younger generation” – admitting that the company is “seen as one of the bad guys”.

Shell last year advertised for a new staff member to manage its TikTok campaigns, while oil and gas giant ExxonMobil has been the highest advertising spender on Facebook and Instagram in the last five years, shelling out $23.1 million since June 2018.

“There’s an endless supply” of greenwashing adverts on social media, environmental content creator Jacob Simon told DeSmog. “While there’s more knowledge in general around climate change and the harms of fossil fuels, I think that people have a lot of trust in creators. When influencers that people know and respect talk about something, they’re likely to believe them.”

‘We Needed Them to Think Differently About Shell’

Shell appears to have been the most prominent employer of influencer advertising over the last seven years.

In April, for example, the fossil fuel giant released a five-part YouTube series hosted by ex-BBC presenter Dallas Campbell, which touted the net zero benefits of hydrogen and featured one-on-one interviews with two Shell executives.

Oil and gas companies have been heavily promoting hydrogen as a green fuel, despite the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimating that hydrogen will represent at best 2.1 percent of total energy consumption in 2050.

“Shell has the ambition to make enough hydrogen from renewable power to kick-start this energy revolution,” Campbell said in the first video of the series, which has gained nearly 30,000 views.

The former BBC presenter has also promoted the series on his personal social media channels. On Instagram, Campbell encouraged his followers to watch his “Hydrogen powered adventure!” but did not tag Shell, nor mention his commercial relationship with the brand.

This was also not the first time that Campbell had partnered with Shell. In 2016, he presented the social media coverage of the company’s Make the Future London festival. “Dallas was fantastic,” Shell said in a testimonialfollowing the event, adding that the social media campaign had fetched over a million views, which the company described as “absolutely huge!”

In 2022, a Harvard University paper found that a “green innovation” narrative was one of the key social media tactics deployed by fossil fuel companies. Analysing 2,325 social media posts from 22 major European polluters, the report found that 72 percent of posts from oil and gas firms tried to emphasise their spending on green technology.

As the study also pointed out, however, these firms invested just 1.7 percent of their annual capital expenditures in low carbon technologies between 2010 and 2018.

It also appears that major polluters have been using influential environmentalists to bolster their social media campaigns.

This includes Robert Swan, a popular advocate for the protection of Antarctica who received an OBE in 1995 after becoming the first person to walk both poles.

In late 2017, Shell sponsored Swan and his son, Barney, to travel to the South Pole and promote its “renewable” biofuels, with Shell distributing the campaign widely on social media.

Behind the publicity stunt was one of Shell’s principal PR agencies, Edelman. The PR firm boasts on its website that the expedition organically reached 600 million people on social media and was so successful that it increased “positive attitudes towards [Shell]” by 12 percent, and made Shell’s audience “31 percent more likely to believe” that the oil company is “committed to cleaner fuels”.

“The company [Shell] tasked Edelman with the job of giving millennials a reason to connect emotionally with Shell’s commitment to a sustainable future,” the Edelman website says. “We needed them to forget their prejudices about ‘big oil’ and think differently about Shell.”

Robert Swan told DeSmog that he is not a celebrity or an influencer but an “explorer” and that Shell helped in their “effort to support biofuel”.

“We needed a backup fuel because the sun doesn’t always shine,” he said.

This was echoed by his son Barney, who advises businesses on “reducing their environmental impact” and runs an environmental charity. He told DeSmog that to make meaningful progress towards the energy transition “you have to work with big industry,” adding that Shell’s biofuels are part of that solution.

“I’ve definitely copped a lot of criticism for it [working with Shell],” he said, yet adding that Shell offered him, “a younger person”, the opportunity to “feel represented” and “build more trust” in their so-called “nature based solutions”.

Ultimately, he said the expedition “was not a Shell story – it was a father and son story, having a good go of it.”

‘The Wrong Side of History’

British inventor Colin Furze, who has 12.5 million followers on YouTube, has also worked with Shell on its social media output. In a campaign produced for the fossil fuel giant by advertising agency EssenceMediacom, Furze co-hosted a six week virtual competition “challenging students to solve real life energy challenges”.

The campaign was co-hosted by US-based science influencer Astronaut Abby and won World Media Group’s 2021 Corporate Influencer Award. According to the award submission, the competition generated 127 million views and nearly one billion impressions, with EssenceMediacom boasting that Shell-branded content “actually outperformed Colin [Furze’s] own organic content benchmarks, achieving 59 percent more interactions than the norm for posts on Colin’s owned channels”.

EssenceMediacom, which belongs to multinational communications company WPP, has previously claimed to help clients “integrate sustainability into their advertising and marketing strategies”.

Environmental content creator Jacob Simon told DeSmog that, “Any agency with fossil fuel clients is on the wrong side of history. Agencies have a responsibility to use their talent and skills for good, to connect and make ads that benefit society and make the world a better place instead of harming us and contributing to global pollution and destruction.”

YouTube also appears to have been a target for Shell. In December 2021, the popular motoring channel Seen Through Glass was paid to host a collaboration with Shell, during which its host Sam Fane was shown around Finali Mondiali, the World Finals of the Scuderia Ferrari Challenge Series. Seen Through Glass has 600,000 YouTube subscribers and was named as one of the Sunday Times’s top 50 UK influencers in 2019.

In 2021, Shell also sponsored GadgetsBoy – a consumer tech channel with 73,000 YouTube subscribers – to testthe firm’s new e-scooter.

“These public messaging efforts form part and parcel of a broader greenwashing strategy of which the objective is to portray Shell as a global champion in the energy transition,” Gregory Trencher, an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, Kyoto University, told DeSmog.

“Yet this is far from the reality, as despite having a goal in place to reach net zero emissions, Shell has abandoned its plan to reduce its production of oil by 1-2 percent each year up to 2030 and has reaffirmed its plans to grow its gas production.”

A Shell spokesperson said that, “People are well aware that Shell produces the oil and gas they depend on today. However, what many don’t know is that we are also investing billions of dollars in low- and zero-carbon solutions globally as part of our efforts to support the energy transition.

“No energy transition can be successful if people are not aware of the alternatives available to them. Making our customers aware – through advertising or social media – of the low-carbon solutions we offer now or are developing is an important and valid part of our marketing activities.”

Global Reach

Fossil fuel companies have also relied on family lifestyle influencers to promote their products and improve their reputations.

In June 2019, oil and gas supermajor BP used Alex Galbally, a UK-based “dad influencer”, to promote its reward app, “BPme”.

Galbally, who boasts over 100,000 followers on Instagram, posed outside a petrol station along with four of his kids and told his followers that the BP app “really is gonna make my life!”.

Galbally deleted this post after being contacted for comment by DeSmog.

This post was part of a concerted effort to promote the BPme app via lifestyle and cultural influencers across the English-speaking world, with at least 17 influencers posting content that gained at least 675,000 likes and five million views.

DeSmog also identified influencer campaigns promoting fossil fuel companies in other countries including India, Chile, Germany, and Indonesia. The total combined following of all the influencers who have posted fossil fuel partnerships since 2017, in posts analysed by DeSmog, is nearly 60 million.

These campaigns often took advantage of lax restrictions on the labelling of social media sponsorships. In the UK, influencers are required to clearly label when they have been paid to promote a brand – rules that are absent in many other countries.

In 2021, a number of Instagram influencers in India promoted a Shell advertising campaign, racking up millions of video views.

Few of the posts flagged that they were paid adverts (something that wasn’t required under Indian law until this year), though they all used a similar format and included Shell corporate hashtags.

One of the few labelled campaigns was from Indian actress Radhika Apte, who posted a paid video partnership with Shell on Instagram that received 3.6 million views.

“I think that fossil fuel companies are very good at shape shifting to maintain their social licence,” environmental activist and influencer Francesca Willow told DeSmog. “They have smart people working there who have realised that social media is where they can focus their attention, or where they should focus their attention, because other strategies have started to fail them.”

Major polluters also appear to have used influencers to exaggerate the green credentials of their products. In Indonesia, Shell paid popular travel photographer Felgra Yogatama to promote its lubricant Shell Helix Ultra, which he described in an Instagram post as “The world’s first carbon neutral oil, made from natural gas,” claiming that it is used to “ensure high performance and low emissions”.

“The claim of ‘carbon neutral’ engine oil is ludicrous,” said Professor Trencher.

Yogatama, who is followed by over 400,000 people, confirmed to DeSmog that Shell had approached him “to do a project just like any other brand”, but this fact was neither stated in the body of the post nor in the label, giving the impression of an organic post.

“Greenwashing attempts have been rampant with the big oil and gas companies for a long time,” said Arild Wæraas, an Associate Professor at Oslomet Business School, who has studied corporate attempts to exaggerate their social and environmental work.

Ultimately, though, Wæraas doesn’t believe that social media campaigns will measurably shift public perceptions of big polluters. “I don’t think Shell and others will be able to improve their reputation much until they transition fully to producing green energy,” he said.

Meanwhile, environmental groups are determined to expose the tactics of fossil fuel giants and to persuade influencers not to work with them.

“We need to educate people more on what these companies are actually doing so that when you are approached as a creator, you don’t fall for it,” Tolmeia Gregory, associate creative director at Clean Creatives, told DeSmog.

This was echoed by James Turner, founder of the creative collective Glimpse. “The fossil fuel industry is using the glossy sheen of influencers to stop it looking like a creaking dinosaur,” he said. That’s why we need young creators of all stripes to avoid the likes of Shell and BP and use their talent to promote brands that are actually serious about climate change. This influencer stuff is just getting started, and we need to nip it in the bud while we still can.”

All the individuals and firms named in this article were approached for comment.

Robert Swan OBE

Barney Swan

Colin Furze

Dallas Campbell

Alex Galbally

Alesha Dixon

Jason Bradbury

Dr Shini Somara

Letitia Wright

Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE

Remel London

Tom Kahler


Seen Through Glass

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  1. Ignacio

    I bet this form of greenwashing is quite effective. My daughter works now with a company based in… Brussels that counsels and organizes events on energy issues of which some make some sense while others are nothing but pure greenwashing. This in particular uses LinkedIn ans Twitter and their main channels when they organize workshops, events etc. These at least have to be careful about their contents if they want to keep their company name safe. Problem is that these oil giants are the guys with lots of money to spend in such campaigns overwhelming any other attempt to talk real. It looks like a lost battle though posts like this one here help to clarify how the war on carbon is waged. Quite possibly influencers are the largest source of fakes.

  2. Henry Moon Pie

    I agree with you, Yves, that we need more investigation into billionaire- and corporate-funded efforts to mislead the public intentionally. This article made me aware of this new tactic of using social media influencers in addition to the liar-for-hire “institutes” that we have all lamented not just in the “climate space,” but with Covid as well.

    It would be fairly easy to put a dent in those institutes since the tax laws actually privilege them. Handing out cash to influencers will be harder to track and regulate.

    1. digi_owl

      It is downright crazy that influencers are not just operating openly, but gets praised like celebrities, when all they do is word of mouth marketing for the highest bidder.

      If anything they should be vilified.

  3. JW

    Surely what is good for the goose is good for the gander?
    Its impossible to watch anything on TV with the message about ‘CO2 is evil’ being rammed down your throat in all programs, drama, comedy, sport as well as where you might expect it in documentaries, news, lifestyle. etc.
    Take the subject out of every ‘influencing’ media, and let a true, fact based debate occur between scientists of every persuasion.
    Won’t happen of course because far too money and power is at stake for both ‘sides’.
    Somewhere under the surface, ignored by almost everyone, are the natural effects of 96% of the CO2 in the atmosphere. Ah but those other 4% of molecules have ‘magic’ properties for whoever wants to pursue their own agendas.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Exactly! And, speaking as a non-influencer and un-celebrity, I would rather err on the side of taking action.

      Here at the Arizona Slim Ranch, I have three mature desert trees, a mesquite and two ironwoods. So, I am seeding the next generation as we speak.

      It’s really easy to do. I’m piling mesquite pods in places where I want new trees to sprout. Likewise for the ironwoods.

      The thing about trees is, we don’t have to walk up to them and say, “When you have a minute, would you mind performing a little photosynthesis?”

      Trees just do that, without any polite requests on our part.

      Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to head out to the cistern and start my morning meditation. I’ll be filling watering cans and watering my raised bed vegetable gardens.

    2. some guy

      There is no division between 96% of the CO2 molecules having natural effects versus 4% of the CO2 molecules having magic properties which people pursuing their own agendas can seize upon. Every one of the CO2 molecules in the atmosphere has just the same amount of natural effects as every other one of them. There are no “magic” molecules here.

      The problem for us is that one of those natural effects which all the CO2 molecules have is IR radiation re-reflection leading to reduced escape of IR radiation from the earth into space and increased heat buildup here on earth. There is no magic 4% of the CO2 molecules doing that. Every CO2 molecule does its own equal part of that heat retention. We have enough more airborne CO2 molecules relative to what we had at the start of the Industrial Revolution Age that we are getting enough more heat retention relative to what we had at the start of the Industrial Revolution Age that we and the planetary surfacesphere we live on are feeling the sensible effects.

      I don’t know of any intelligent person who is invoking a magic 4% of the CO2 molecules which is doing the excess heat retention all by itself.

  4. Bill Malcolm

    Read this with glazed eyes. Carbon capture is the latest pie-in-the-sky BS technical “solution” oil companies promote. Akin to trying to paint the Broolyn Bridge with a toothbrush is what that “initiative” amounts to. A drop in the ocean. Mere pabulum from the rich to calm the lemmings. Competent engineers can recognize the BS at a thousand paces while wearing blinders. It’s nonsense, but gives the oil companies something to brag about to the general public who haven’t the faintest technical clue to analyze or refute it.Running a smart phone, being a sys admin or coding is what widely passes for technology appreciation these days. Knowing anything about real engineering approximates to zero in the population at large, so they can be easily propagandized by big money advertising. Basement dwelling expert opinionators abound who for some unknown reason never get hired to do actual engineering work, because in fact they know essentially nothing and get laughed at by serious people.

    So of course in my country, the oil company lap poodle Alberta conservative provincial government uses the carbon capture nonsense as justification for continuing to dig up the tar sands, of which there is an almost limitless supply. This as the province burns down amid unprecented wildfires. Cognitive Dissonance should be Alberta’s provincial logo. The British have a lovely term for nitwits like militantly pro-oil citizens and government of Wild Rose Country — gormless.

    And speaking of the terrible wildfire situation in my country, let alone Europe and the US, nobody much has sat down to analyze how much extra carbon dioxide has been spewed out by fire this year compared to the past. There’s one positive feedback loop to global warming nobody wants to tackle, because the implications are horrendous. I would expect the wildfire carbon dioxide output to easily match that from human fossil fuel usage worldwide. A few years ago when I checked it was about 25% extra that was conveniently not talked about. No carbon capture PR from oil companies can match nature reacting to global warming. It’s pipsqueak versus the universe, Grenada versus Ronnie Raygun. To be blunt about it, carbon capture that could make any difference is utter bullshit. If it were viable, then that is how CO2 would have been produced in the past for commercial purposes. But it uses extra energy to power a very inefficient process — anyone promoting it should be keelhauled.

    We are in the end times in my view. Enjoy each nice day that remains and endure the bad ones.

  5. Jeremy Grimm

    I believe most people are simply unwilling to accept the kind of Earth and the kind of life the future holds for them as the critical point of so many processes intersect: Imperial Collapse, Resource Exhaustion, Climate Chaos with their manifold consequences. After the recent series of unfortunate events — extreme weather and fires — denalism stumbles along on very short legs. Now is the time to shift belief to the wondrous capabilities of Science and Technology to offer nostrums for painting Humankind out of a corner too plain to see to deny. Now is the time for new idioms of advertising and marketing nonsense to help the Populace convince itself that there is no need to worry, the movers and shakers have solutions to make everything all better and allow Growth and Prosperity to continue aided by a fix here and a tweak there to take care of all the problems. Sports heroes sell shoes so why shouldn’t other celebrities cash in their celebrity to sell carbon capture, Potemkin mitigations, ‘carbon neutral’ and net-zero® make fossil fuels as green as dollars. It may not be long before their services will be needed to sell one of the geoengineering solutions to solve all our Climate problems and Resilience™, Recycling™ and Reuse™ will handle all the little resource problems. As for Imperial Collapse … it is illusion do not believe your lying eyes. Humankind is on a joy-ride toward Collapse. Most people do not want anything to harsh their mellow, and will most willingly believe anything to avoid facing the fast approaching cliff. No one wants to hear that Troy will fall.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Extending my comment:
      A recent post by Ian Welsh contains a link to an interesting essay:
      “Collapse (too) Might Come Sooner Than Expected”,
      on just how well other sources of energy could substitute for petroleum. The essay brings up the importance of the diesel portion of the petroleum crack. It also extends the idea of the impacts of EROI on petroleum production to include the useful energy return on energy investment. Petroleum products are burned to drill for, extract, and distribute petroleum, and to refine and distribute the cracking fractions to their uses. Much/most of the equipment used requires diesel for its fuel. As diesel becomes a declining fraction of the available petroleum it could soon [2030 is a year tossed out as a “could happen as early as”] require more diesel to get the petroleum than the amount of diesel the petroleum will deliver when it is cracked. Many other elements of the modern economy are also tied to diesel — like food production, the transport of goods and building materials and building itself.

      [There might be some way to replace all the diesel equipment with equipment redesigned to burn the other components of the petroleum crack — the butane or propane, gasoline, kerosene, fuel oil, or heavy distillates paraffin, asphalt, lubricating oil — but that would be very expensive and offer but temporary respite.]

      Interestingly, this essay expresses a concern which especially worries me. Depending on how the impending Collapse proceeds Humankind could suffer “potentially an almost complete loss of knowledge (science and technology)”.

  6. Feral Finster

    In the 1970s and 1980s, the Public Broadcasting Corporation was known as “Petroleum’s British Subsidiary”.

    So they have form.

  7. Alex Cox

    It would also be salutory to learn the climate impact of the war in Ukraine so far, and of the more massive NATO-Russia and NATO-China wars we’re gearing up for.

  8. KLG

    The shade of Edward Bernays is dancing in the moonlight, somewhere.

    Back in the day I knew of a professor of public relations whose required reading included Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda. I never did figure out his purpose, though.

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