Recently, Greenpeace got a rare look behind the curtain at how big oil stages citizen support for huge oil companies, when activists got inside a TV commercial shoot in Washington DC.
The American Petroleum Institute (API) and their PR firm Edelman were filming a new series of TV commercials, which we learned API plans to air nationally on CNN starting in January. The ads, aimed at the 2012 presidential elections, will aim to demonstrate authentic citizen support for the oil industry's agenda.
We disrupted API's astroturf commercial plans by not following instructions and going off script, declaring support for a clean energy future and demanding an end to political interference by the oil industry's lobbyists and PR firms.
Activists were led through the wardrobe and make-up process, approved for looks by representatives from API and Edelman Blue Advertising, before waiting their turns to go on set. Participants were required to be registered voters, explained an API representative, to protect API from "opponents" who may inquire if actors stating “I vote” are actually eligible to do so. Other recruited actors were being watched by the industry representatives during their takes, repeating lines like, “That [energy independence] will come from our own energy resources – like oil and natural gas.”
Late in the morning, the API Edelman team filmed three unexpectedly honest ‘citizens’ who made clear the script did not represent their real opinions on energy. Greenpeace researcher Connor Gibson of the PolluterWatch project repeated their scripted line, “I vote,” then declared, “But I am a clean energy citizen.
"I will not believe the lies and influence peddling of the American Petroleum Institute, which would leave you to believe that I am a citizen that is okay with giving my tax payer dollars to billionaires and millionaires that run oil companies, the most profitable industry on the planet.” Gibson stressed movement away from a “perpetual petroleum future” and finished his speech by telling Edelman Blue President Robert McKernan “we need clean sources of energy, like wind and solar.” Watch the video above to hear his declaration.
In addition to Gibson, two other participants refused to recite API’s script. Peter Roquemore of the Sierra Student Coalition and Gabe Elsner, deputy director of the Checks And Balances Project, showed up to the shoot with the expectation that they would provide their own assessments of American energy. Both decided not to participate once they were fed oil industry talking points on camera.
In a taped conversation with the activists, an API communications advisor described the upcoming Vote 4 Energy advertising package in great detail: "This is scheduled to launch in January in a commercial on CNN, so it'll be a national spot... API - American Petroleum Institute - bought into an election package so any time CNN does anything like covering the presidential debates, cover a caucus, anything like that, those will be the kinds of programs where the commercial is seen." The commercial debuts on January first. How much the deal with CNN cost remains an open question.
The API rep also said, “We are shooting a ton of people so, you know, you may make the cut, you may not. It all depends on the demographic.”
Earlier in the morning, API agents were overheard expressing a need for more people of colour in the commercials, noting that black and Asian demographics tend to disagree with big oil's warped political positions. API has been caught in the past photoshopping print ads to include racial minorities in photos purchased from iStockphoto to make their already fabricated supporters appear more diverse.
Over two years ago, Greenpeace obtained a confidential memo [pdf] from American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard, asking API member oil companies to support a campaign to fake a grassroots movement called Energy Citizens. Under the guise of this astroturf group, big oil companies would pay for public events similar to Tea Party rallies in support of their absurd wishlist: killing global warming legislation, unrestricted offshore oil drilling, increased tar sands development through the Keystone XL pipeline, expanded hydraulic fracturing, and no form of accountability for their immense contributions to climate change.
Luckily, the leaked memo was revealed on the front page of the Financial Times and covered in the Washington Post, Guardian and the Huffington Post. The New York Times called it "Another Astroturf Campaign," revealing what a fluke Energy Citizens was before Chevron had the chance to bus its employees to API’s first round of staged rallies, the majority of which were organized by oil lobbyists. Greenpeace called attention to API’s tactic by installing astroturf on the front entrance of API’s Washington DC headquarters, featuring the logos of its largest members: ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP and the banner "Climate fraud: funded by big oil".
Given the nature of API’s latest commercial shoot, its Energy Citizens rallies where participants had to be instructed to clap (see [Astro]Turf Wars), and its repeated use of stock photos to boost the perception of public support for Big Oil, it is reasonable to question the authenticity of similar PR moves like the '1’m One' or 'One in a Million' advertising campaigns, also run by PR company Edelman, which purport to show real people who work for the oil industry.
The American Petroleum Institute, the top lobbying firm for the oil and gas industry, has spent at least $30 million peddling its dirty influence to the US government in the last five years, and recently announced it would start funneling oil money to politicians. With it's $200 million big oil budget, API has played a key role in the industry’s climate denial movement by funding junk scientists like Willie Soon and coordinating a public relations strategy to create doubt over climate change.
Kert Davies is research director for Greenpeace in Washington DC.