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Chevron's Energy Campaign Draws Mixed Reviews

Chevron's ad campaign to raise awareness of energy consumption issues follows similar moves by its peers, and gets a mixed reception. By Lisa Roner

Almost daily rises in oil and gas prices are putting the world’s oil majors on the spot, especially with U.S. consumers, prompting them to launch concerted public image campaigns.

According to research group TNS Media Intelligence, the four supermajors -- ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Royal Dutch Shell –- ratcheted up their combined advertising spending by 37% to $138 million in the first five months of this year, even after a 15% increase in 2004.

BP and Shell have both hosted advertising campaigns aimed at raising awareness among consumers on energy issues and ExxonMobil publishes a fairly comprehensive energy forecast. But Chevron has caused a stir this summer with its global Will You Join Us campaign in which it candidly admits "the era of easy oil is over."

It is a declaration some industry observers say they never thought they’d hear from a member of the industry itself.

The ad campaign and Web site -– which has a counter that tallies the number of barrels of oil consumed while viewers visit –- challenge consumers to conserve energy and to offer suggestions for both making the most out of current supplies and developing alternatives to fossil fuels.

Even some stalwart critics, long frustrated by the industry’s usual “head in the sand” approach to the issue of peak oil production, credit Chevron chief executive Dave O’Reilly with beginning to “break ranks” with his counterparts and to position himself to fill a void of public policy leadership in the industry.

“What we all do next will determine how well we meet the energy needs of the entire world in this century and beyond,” writes O’Reilly in an open letter. It is a new public posture, which although does not erase the company’s lingering corporate responsibility issues such as charges of toxic dumping of chemicals in the rainforests of Ecuador and human rights abuses in Nigeria is beginning to earn Chevron a new level of respect from some of it staunchest critics.

Friendly Approach

At the very least, Ed Ahnert, executive in resident at the Cox School of Business of Southern Methodist University and president emeritus of the ExxonMobil Foundation, says Chevron’s approach with the campaign is effective because it is friendly and inviting, while offering consumers enough information to delve into the facts of the situation and cultivate a better understanding of the issues.

But others say the friendly “letters from Dave” approach is a classic case of corporate greenwashing as Chevron attempts to shore up Big Oil’s threatened power base with calculated public relations language. Some environmentalists argue the effort and investment would have been better spent cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Coupled with its new corporate social responsibility report, which F&C Asset Management says shows substantive progress in many key areas and “leapfrogs” it past many of its peers, many agree that Chevron’s Join Us campaign is a positive sign the company’s momentum is advancing it closer to the high road of corporate responsibility. What remains to be seen is if Chevron can maintain that momentum to keep it on track in future. As one cautiously optimistic observer put it, stay tuned to see if Chevron will really walk the walk.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of Ethical Corporation. It was first published on Oct. 17, 2005.

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