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The forgotten oil ads that said climate change was nothing| Environment
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The forgotten oil ads that said climate change was nothing| Environment

Life Magazine, 1962


Why is it so difficult to take meaningful action to prevent the climate crisis? Ads are partly to blame.

The fossil fuel industry has facilitated a multi-decade long, multibillion dollar campaign of propaganda, disinformation, and lobbying campaignTo delay climate action and confuse policymakers and the public regarding the climate crisis and its solutions. This has involved a remarkable array of advertisements – with headlines ranging from “Lies they tell our children” to “Oil pumps life” – seeking to convince the public that the climate crisis is not real, not human-made, not serious and not solvable. The campaign continues to this very day.

As recently as last month, six big oil CEOs were summoned to US Congress to answer for the industry’s history of discrediting climate science – yet they liedUnder oath. This means that the fossil fuel industry is misleading people about its history of misleading them.

We are experts in the history and disinformation about climate change. So here, in black and white (and color), is a selection of big oil’s thousands of deceptive climate ads from 1984 to 2021. This isn’t an exhaustive analysis, of which we have published several, but a brief, illustrated history – like the ‘sizzle reels’ that creatives use to highlight their best work – of the 30-plus year evolution of fossil fuel industry propaganda. This is big oil’s PR sizzle reel.

Early days: Learning how to spin

Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) was not self-conscious about the potential environmental impacts of its products in this 1962 advertisement touting “Each day Humble supplies enough energy to melt 7 million tons of glacier!”

Life Magazine, 1962

The truth behind the advertisement: Three years earlier, in 1959, America’s oil bosses had been warned that burning fossil fuels could lead to global heating “sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York”.

Their knowledge only grew. An internal Exxon in 1979 study warned of “dramatic environmental effects” before 2050. “By the late 1970s”, a former Exxon scientist recently recalled, “global warming was no longer speculative”.

“Reposition global warming as theory (not fact)”

In 1991, Informed Citizens for the Environment, a front group of coal and utility companies announced that “Doomsday is cancelled” and asked, “Who told you the earth was warming … Chicken Little?” They complained about “weak” evidence, “non-existent” proof, inaccurate climate models and asserted that the physics was “open to debate”.

Informed Citizens for the Environment, 1991: "Who told you the earth was warming... Chicken Little?"
Informed Citizens for the Environment, 1991: "Doomsday is cancelled. Again."

The truth behind the adsFossil fuel companies stayed silent for as long as possible, instead of warning the public about global warming or taking action. However, the climate crisis was recognized by the world in late 1980s. Exxon called a “critical event”. The fossil fuel industry’s PR apparatus swung into action, implementing a strategy straight out of big tobacco’s playbook: to weaponize science against itself.

A 1991 memo by Informed Citizens for the Environment made that strategy explicit: “Reposition global warming as theory (not fact).”

“Emphasize the uncertainty”

ExxonMobil and Mobil ran the largest climate denial campaign. campaignsThe most influential of all time, with a foray back in the 1980s, a blitz back in the 1990s, and continued messaging into the 2000s. Their climate ‘advertorials’ – advertisements disguised as editorials – appeared in the op-ed page of the New York Times and other newspapers and were part of what scholars have called “the longest, regular (weekly) use of media to influence public and elite opinion in contemporary America”.

New York Times, 1984: "Lies they tell our children"
New York Times, 1993: "Apocalypse no"

Mobil was the largest company between 1996-98. ran12 advertorials were timed to coincide with the 1997 UN Kyoto negotiations. 10 of them questioned the reality of the climate crisis and 10 downplayed its severity. “Reset the alarm,” one ad suggested. “Let’s not rush to a decision at Kyoto … We still don’t know what role man-made greenhouse gases might play in warming the planet.”

New York Times 1997 ad from Mobil: "What we don't know"
New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other publications, 2000, from Mobil: "Unsettled Science"

  • Left: New York Times, 1997. Right: New York Times Wall Street Journal and other publications 2000

The truth behind the ads “Exxon’s position”, instructed internal strategy memos from 1988-89, was to “extend the science” and “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions” about the climate crisis. Or as a 1998 “Action Plan” by Exxon, Chevron, API, utilities companies and others declared: “Victory will be achieved when average citizens” and the “media ‘understands’ (recognizes) uncertainties in climate science.”

ExxonMobil continuedClimate denial funding through at least 2018. One of their 2004 advertorials claimed “scientific uncertainties” precluded “determinations regarding the human role in recent climate change”. It was false. Nine years earlier, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had concluded a “discernible human influence on global climate”. ExxonMobil’s chief climate scientist was a contributing authorThe report.

Economic scaremongering

“Don’t risk our economic future,” implored the Global Climate Coalition, a front group for utility, oil, coal, mining, railroad and car companies. This ad, which was shot in 1997, also targeted Kyoto negotiations. It was part a $13 million campaign that was so successful that even the White House was able to use it. told GCC: President Bush “rejected Kyoto, in part, based on input from you”.

Global Climate Coalition, 1997 ad: "Americans work hard for what we have, Mr. President. Don't risk our economic future."

The truth behind the advertisement: Put “emphasis on costs/political realities”, instructed a 1989 Exxon strategy memo. Just like the fossil fuels industry fundedContrarian scientists to deny climate scienceIt also toutedThe flawedEconomic analyses by industry-funded economists.

The best predictorsMedia scrutiny and political activism are the two main causes of ads for fossil fuel industry advertising. Economic scaremongering has become passé. digitalWith huge amounts of spikesTelevision and social mediaOil ad spending lobbiesEach time climate regulations are in the horizon. ExxonMobil will be presenting ExxonMobil’s predictions for the 2018-20 US presidential election and the midterm elections. spentMore political advertising is done on Facebook and Instagram than any other company (except Facebook).

It’s not our fault, it’s yours

BP Marketing has been generating over $100 million per year since 2004-06. campaign “introduced the idea of a ‘carbon footprint’ before it was a common buzzword”, accordingThe PR agent responsible for the campaign. This campaign’s targets were the “routine human activities” and “lifestyle choices” of “individuals” and the “average American household”. In 2019, BP ran a new “Know your carbon footprint” campaignOn social media

BP ad in various publications, 2003 to 2006: "What on earth is a carbon footprint?"
BP ad in various publications, 2003 to 2006: "Reduce your carbon footprint. But first, find out what it is."

The truth behind the ads Big oil’s rhetoric has evolved from outright denial to more subtle forms of propaganda, including shiftingCompanies should shift responsibility to consumers, not the other way around. This mimics big tobacco’s effort to combat criticism and defend against litigation and regulation by “casting itself as a kind of neutral innocent, buffeted by the forces of consumer demand”.

Greenwashing: talk clean but do the dirty!

“We’re partnering with major universities to develop the next generation of biofuels,” said Chevron in 2007. This is also a popular topic of conversation. BP, ExxonMobilOthers.

The New Yorker, 2007, Chevron ad: "We're partnering with major universities to develop the next generation of biofuels."

ExxonMobil has been trumpeting its research into algae biofuels for more than a decade – from black-and-white print ads (2009) to digital commercials (2018-21).

New York Times, 2009 ad from Exxon Mobil on algae biofuels
New York Times 2018 algae ad

The truth behind the ads Greenwashing gives companies an air of environmental credibility, while distracting from their antiscience, anti-clean-energy disinformation, lobbying, and investments. The goal is to defend BP’s interests. calls a company’s “social license to operate”.

One way fossil fuel companies give themselves a green sheen is to establish – then boast about – what a 1998 API strategy memo termed “cooperative relationships” with reputable academic institutions. Big oil’s colonization of academiaIt is widespread. Shell’s ongoing sponsorship of the London Science Museum’s climate exhibition comes with a gagging clause prohibiting the museum from discrediting the company’s reputation.

As for algae: America’s five largest oil and gas companies spent$3.6 billion spent on corporate reputation marketing between 1986 and 2015. ExxonMobil is the owner. spentAdvertising is more important than research into algae.

“We’re part of the solution!”

BP “developed an ‘all of the above’ strategy” for marketing energy from 2006-08, “before any presidential candidates spoke of the same”, according to BP’s PR lead.

Big oil continues to push this narrative of ‘fossil fuel solution-ism’Including its “all of the above” language on social media, in CongressAnd in paid-for, pretended editorialsThe Washington Post. To make this spin stick, fossil fuel companies have been calling methane “clean” since at least the 1980s. “Natural gas is already clean,” said API Facebook adsAnd billboardsLast year.

BP’s ‘all of the above’ ad
American Petroleum Institute native advertising in the Washington Post, 2021

The truth behind the adsIn contradictionBig oil believes that fossil fuels will continue to be vital for the future despite the science of global warming. The “all of the above” energy mantra was – as BP’s advertising creative put it – “co-opted by politicians in 2008” and became a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s energy policies. The campaign also positioned methane as a “clean bridge” fuel.

Like “clean coal”, calling methane “clean”, “cleanest” or “low-carbon” has been deemedRegulators will not tolerate false advertising

In 2020 and beyond, distortion of reality

A Shell TV ad last year featured birds in the sky, fields of wind and solar farms, the CEO of a Shell renewables subsidiary saying she’s “made the future far cleaner and far better for our children”, and not one reference to fossil fuels.

The truth behind the ad: Between 2010 and 2018, 98.7% of Shell’s investmentsThey were in oil and natural gas. These false representations are industry-wide.

Today, we’re all inundated with ads that leverage a combination of narratives, including those illustrated above, to present fossil fuel companies as climate saviors. It’s way past time we called their bluff.

The narratives highlighted here are a selection of ‘discourses of climate denialAnd delay’ previously identified by the authors and other researchers. The authors identified the advertisements used to illustrate these discourses based on a review that included dozens of peer-reviewed articles, journalistic investigations and white papers.and lawsuits.


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