Introducing: The Fossil Fuel Ad Anthology
Fossil fuel companies are increasingly inundating our lives with ads. Let's try to track them.
From 1986 to 2015, the five biggest fossil fuel corporations in America spent a combined $3.6 billion on advertisements.
These advertisements have served not to sell the public on products, but ideas—namely, that fossil fuels are good and necessary; and that the companies extracting and burning them are effectively fighting environmental problems like air pollution and climate change.
That’s according to forthcoming research from Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist and professor emeritus at Drexel University. Soon to be published in the journal Climatic Change, Brulle’s paper will show how Exxon, BP, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips have historically used advertising as a key part of their multi-pronged strategy to oppose climate legislation in the United States.
“The amount of money big oil companies spend on advertising directly relates to how much Congress is talking about climate change legislation,” Brulle told me in a phone call on Thursday. “If they’re having a lot of hearings and introducing a lot of bills, there’s a lot of promotion. If Congress is silent, and there’s no worry about climate legislation, their spending on corporate promotion goes way down.”
This particular part of the fossil fuel industry’s strategy isn’t as widely reported on as the other parts. “We know how corporations fund conservative think thanks that dispute the science,” Brulle said. “We know how they do lobbying. We know how they make political contributions to politicians.”
But currently, we don’t know a lot about how fossil fuel companies use advertising to influence public opinion, or how effective that has been. And that’s a shame, Brulle said, because advertising “is probably the biggest money expenditure of all the fossil fuel industry’s influencing activities. By far.”
Why don’t we know as much about advertising as we do about other parts of the industry’s attempts to sow denial and delay? It’s hard to say.
But Brulle thinks it is, in part, because our most respected journalism outlets that should be relentlessly reporting on such ads are running them instead.
Fossil fuel ads are taking over the news
It’s not hard to find a fossil fuel ad if you’re a consumer of mainstream political news today. In fact, it’s probably harder to consume mainstream political news today and not run into a fossil fuel ad.
Fossil fuel companies advertise in The New York Times and the Washington Post; on NPR and in Politico; on MSNBC, CNN and the Food Network; in Axios and the Economist. In these ads, companies usually tout their investments in renewable energy and carbon capture—attempts to paint themselves as good faith actors in the fight against climate change.
It’s hard to quantify just how many ads are running in the pages of our most respected news institutions. So today, HEATED is launching an Instagram page called @fossilfuelads, which will attempt to chronicle just how prolific fossil fuel ads are in our news media environment.
It’s admittedly kind of a crappy page so far, and doesn’t have a ton of entries. But that’s because I’m only one person, and I’m busy as hell. (You might remember, I launched a paid subscriber campaign this week and am in San Francisco doing a fellowship). I need your help.
So please send any examples of fossil fuel company ads you see on television, radio, podcasts, newspapers, newsletters, and online news outlets to firstname.lastname@example.org. Together, we’ll populate the hell out of this thing.
Why care about fossil fuel ads in media?
Reporters and editors do not take kindly to the suggestion that fossil fuel advertisements are influencing their coverage. Honestly, if I worked at one of these outlets and did as much good work as these reporters do, I wouldn’t either.
Just look at this Twitter exchange yesterday between New York Times climate reporter John Schwartz and independent climate reporter Amy Westervelt, regarding the Times’ business-side practice of producing ads for oil companies:
NYT Climate@nytclimateWhat you can't see can hurt the planet: methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and leaks are plentiful. We went hunting for them with equipment that reveals the unseen. https://t.co/IiQApiYBZ7 https://t.co/9huxQLcJzd
The exchange goes on, and I encourage you to read it in full, because I think it captures both perspectives pretty well.
For full transparency’s sake, I know and greatly respect both John and Amy—and I don’t believe the ads produced on the Times’ business side influences the Times’ climate coverage. In fact, I think the Times’ climate reporters do some of the best journalism on this crisis in the country, and are fully deserving of the public trust. Please read their latest on methane leaks in Texas, which includes some absolutely stunning visual journalism.
But I also understand where Brulle is coming from when he complains about how outlets that regularly run advertisements from oil companies—like the Times, NPR, Axios, Politico, the Washington Post, and the Economist—rarely, if ever, run critical coverage of how fossil fuel advertising influences public perception of climate change and policy.
“They never go there,” he said. “It appears to me there’s a self-censorship of what they will cover and what they won’t. And they won’t cover corporate advertising and corporate propaganda efforts to influence the public to be favorable to fossil fuels. They won’t cover that, but they’ll carry the ads.”
Is there self-censorship? It’s impossible to say. These outlets would say there’s absolutely not—and being a journalist myself who trusts other climate journalists, I’d be inclined to believe them.
But I’d also understand if people held a level of distrust for these institutions because they run misleading fossil fuel company ads without aggressively covering the impact of said ads. And that concerns me, because we won’t solve the climate crisis without powerful, trustworthy institutional journalism.
Reporters from these outlets often say their readers are not being fooled by these ads. But how do they know that? How can they prove it?
Because the fossil fuel industry thinks readers are being influenced by their ads. As Brulle points out, Exxon once did a study of its advertising efforts in the New York Times in 1981, and claimed they were able to change the viewpoints of both reporters and readers on policy. “They’re saying they can manipulate media coverage through these activities,” Brulle said. “Whether that’s a claim of their PR department writing about themselves, or something empirically true, I don’t know. But they make that claim.”
Why do fossil fuel companies run ads in news outlets?
Geoffery Supran, a Harvard University researcher who co-authored a peer-reviewed analysis of ExxonMobil's 40-year history of climate change communications, said oil companies run ads for one reason, and one reason only: because they work.
“The fossil fuel industry's ad campaigns are state of the art propaganda developed in partnership with public relations experts and based on almost a century of collaborative experience,” he said in an email. “Everyone is a target: politicians, policymakers, the public, and the press themselves.”
Supran also said that readers are often tricked by native advertising. “Even when native advertising is labelled, numerous studies have shown that significant fractions of audiences fail to identify ads embedded amidst news,” he wrote. “For instance, this 2014 study concluded that: ‘Given our research and past studies, however, publishers should be aware that, even when native advertising is labeled, a significant number of audience members may not perceive it as such.’” Two other studies, from 2016 and 2018, had similar findings.
When it comes to media ads, Brulle said oil companies’ target audience is the so-called “educated elite”—that is, people who closely follow government activity, or are involved in it. “They’re trying to influence the influencers,” he said.
“They know their demographic. They know what they’re doing. It’s a very well-constructed political influence campaign,” Brulle said. “They’ve been doing it for decades, and we’ve yet to have any real action of climate change.”
“Does that mean their propaganda campaign is working? I don’t know,” he added. “But if they are spending $300 million a year on it, and they think it’s important, we ought to be trying to understand how it actually works.”
The reporting ain’t over, yet
Over the course of the coming weeks and months, HEATED will try to get a better grip on how fossil fuel advertising works.
I’ll track the ads through the @fossilfuelads Instagram page. I’ll try my best to talk to editors about why they run fossil fuel ads, and reporters about how they feel about them. I’ll chronicle the many ongoing attempts to crack down on fossil fuel advertising in America and in other countries. And I’ll look at the historical parallels to tobacco advertising, and look at how news outlets like the New York Times came to ban it.
But I can only keep doing this with your support. HEATED is 100 percent reader-funded. Not only do I not take fossil fuel ads, I don’t take any ads. I’m trusting that this is valuable enough that people will pay for it, and that I can remain fully independent.
Next week, HEATED becomes a paid subscriber-only publication. Free subscribers will still get at least one issue a week, on Mondays. They’ll also get newsletters when I write what I think is a particularly important story, or when there’s breaking news.
I understand that not everyone can afford a paid subscription. So for every 100 paid subscribers, I’m giving away 10 subscriptions to people who need it. If you are one of those people in financial need, email me at email@example.com.
I look forward to building the Fossil Fuel Ad Anthology with you, and continuing to do this reporting on the most important topic of our time.
OK, that’s all for today—thank for reading HEATED!
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