BP: Beyond Propaganda

August 18, 2006 at 8:51 pm
Contributed by: Chris


Here’s a fresh perspective, tales from an insider on British Petroleum’s “beyond petroleum” ad campaign. It’s a fun read.


Beyond Propaganda
Published: August 14,

FOR some men, it’s cars, a sports team or watching “The Godfather” over and
over. For me, it’s oil companies. They fascinate me. Their size, their power,
their reach. So I was particularly interested in the recent news about BP
shutting down the nation’s largest oil field, in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

I was interested in part because six years ago I helped create BP’s current
advertising campaign, the man-in-the-street television commercials. I can’t take
credit for changing the company’s name from “British Petroleum” to “beyond
petroleum” (lower case is cooler); my boss at the time came up with it.

That was the summer of 2000. Ideas were needed. We were pitching to the top
man, Sir John Browne (now Lord Browne). My partner and I got the assignment.
Other agencies got to work on Nike, Apple, Super Bowl spots. I would have taken
Taco Bell. We got an oil company. At the time, I knew nothing about oil

I started reading. The facts alone are amazing: 85 million barrels of oil a
day used worldwide; 250,000 people born every day; climate change. I read Sir
John’s speeches and read about BP and its technological achievements and
investment in hydrogen.

This wasn’t my idea of an oil company chief. This was hope. Why didn’t they
talk about this stuff? And why did all big oil company advertising look alike?
The typical helicopter shot of a tanker at sea, sunlight reflecting off the logo
as it dissolves to a towheaded urchin on the beach, frolicking in the pristine
waters. A voice like Morgan Freeman’s saying, “At Gigantico Petroleum, we’re on
the move to keep the world on the move. And to fill this tanker with cash.”

So we thought, what if you stripped away the corporate speak? What if you
engaged in the debate that was happening with oil and energy and the

We borrowed a video camera and approached people on the street, asking them
questions: Would you rather have your car or a cleaner environment? Is global
warming real? (Remember, this was 2000, when only one oil company, BP, had even
admitted the possibility of global warming.) If you could say something right
now to the head of a big oil company, what would you say?

It was an amazing experience. I had done man-in-the-street interviews for
other products and knew that it was exceptionally difficult to get someone to
stop and talk. People are simply too busy to talk seriously about, say, toilet
paper with a stranger.

But with oil it was different. People stopped. They talked. They were
intrigued and passionate and intelligent and a little angry. They understood
that oil companies simply deliver a product. Yet — and I think this has to do
with their size and profit — people often expected something more from them than
they did of other large industries. A gallon of milk costs more than a gallon of
gas, but it doesn’t cause global warming. And we don’t need 85 million barrels
of it a day.

In short, they knew the power of an oil company executive. And they wanted

After a day and a half of interviews, we had enough footage for five
commercials. They were raw and emotional. The things people said were sometimes
none-too-flattering to BP or the industry. At the end of each spot, we put up a
list of what BP was doing in terms of cleaner fuels, alternative forms of
energy, recognizing global warming and reducing their own emissions; stuff you
didn’t hear from an oil company. Before the “beyond petroleum” tagline, we
added, “It’s a start.”

We did print ads too. The same way. Real people, real quotes as headlines
that challenged BP and the industry. No oil company — few companies at all — had
ever spoken like this, confronting the debate so frankly.

They liked it.

Advertising is a funny business. You get to help shape the personalities of
huge companies. Most often it’s for cellphone service or credit cards or fast
food or paper towels. Rarely are you faced with whether you “believe” in a
product or service. This was different. This was serious. I believed
wholeheartedly in BP’s message, that we could go — or at least work toward going
— beyond petroleum.

The campaign first appeared a few days before Sept. 11, 2001. It was shelved
for a long time. Then relaunched. In that time, I moved on to other assignments
and later another agency.

The campaign is running again. I heard that the interviewees are prescreened
now, which is too bad. And last week, I heard that the pipeline in Prudhoe Bay
is corroded and leaking. The company that claims to be beyond petroleum shut
down a pipeline that serves up 400,000 barrels of petroleum a day. Maybe
Coca-Cola’s new line should be “It’s good for your teeth.”

I read too that the energy expert Daniel Yergin claimed last week that “new
analysis of oil-industry activity points to a considerable growth in the
capacity to produce oil in the years ahead.” It seems unlikely that anyone’s
going to push hard to change our energy future.

I guess, looking at it now, “beyond petroleum” is just advertising. It’s
become mere marketing — perhaps it always was — instead of a genuine attempt to
engage the public in the debate or a corporate rallying cry to change the
paradigm. Maybe I’m naïve.

It’s just that I believe that the handful of men who run these remarkable
companies possess something more valuable than wealth, privilege and power. They
have at their disposal the truly rare possibility of creating a legacy, the
ability to change things, on a huge scale.

I never actually met Lord Browne. He announced recently that he’ll retire at
the end of 2008, when he reaches BP’s mandatory retirement age of 60. I have no
doubt he is a good, decent and exceptionally bright person. But imagine what the
headlines could have read: “Lord Browne to retire; changed oil industry and the

Think of it. Going beyond petroleum. The best and brightest, at a company
that can provide practically unlimited resources, trying to find newer, smarter,
cleaner ways of powering the world. Only they didn’t go beyond petroleum. They
are petroleum.

The problem there is that “are petroleum” just isn’t a great tagline.

John Kenney is a creative director at an advertising

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