The Shell Oil Hoax: Is Your Brand Next?

Beware: Tools to Create a Faux Ad Campaign Are Cheap and Easy to Use

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The viral video clip looked as if it had been shot at a press conference announcing Shell's plans for new Arctic drilling. So it was particularly ironic when a soda-pop dispenser shaped like an oil rig malfunctioned and sprayed revelers with cola (they used tiny polar bear dolls to sop it up). When the video got hundreds of thousands of views and was reported in mainstream media, Shell threatened legal action. If people were interested in the real story, they could visit the company's site, ArcticReady.org, which detailed the opportunities for profit created by global warming.

None of it was real. It was an elaborate hoax earlier this month funded by Greenpeace and staged by Yes Lab, which specializes in helping progressive groups get messages out by mimicking the content of their targets. The strategy is loosely known as "culture jamming" and was pioneered by the Yes Men, who started out a decade ago as two guys impersonating corporate flacks and making statements that no actual company shill would ever utter. In 2004, they starred in a movie about their antics.

You should care about this, not necessarily because any of the issues interest you. Culture jamming could just as easily be adopted by your competition or, worse, embraced by your most ardent supporters as a tool for "helping" you manage your brand.

Here's how: When Chevron launched its "We Agree" ad campaign in late 2010, the feel-good spots promoted its investments in local communities and research into alternative energy as proof that it was on the right side of contentious public policy issues. Almost immediately, a spate of faux ads appeared, featuring far bolder statements -- the company agreed that oil companies should "clean up their messes," "fix the problems they create," and "put safety first" -- and a fake website documented Chevron's apology and promise to change its ways.

The rub was that Chevron got kudos for the faux ads from reporters who thought they were real, even as the company denied them (the generic campaign continues to this day). The prank attached ideas to Chevron's brand that some observers wished it would embrace, but hadn't, which forced the brand to refute them and thereby publicize its unwillingness to do so. You can debate whether the faux ads were fair or wholly accurate, but the "hoax" seemed truer because it referenced the elephant in the room.

It's hard to accurately measure the damage the prank did to Chevron's case, but I bet it's as subtle as it is long-lasting. The ads will always be available via internet search, so they're going to be a permanent part of any conversation on those public-policy issues. Ditto for stickers created for Barclays, ads for Bank of America, or the latest stunt involving Shell.

Is your brand next? The approach could be easily applied by your competition to deconstruct your messaging. Is eating your breakfast cereal or fast food really as much a part of a healthy lifestyle as you claim? What are the extended environmental impacts of using your laundry detergent or hand sanitizer? How about detailing just how cut-rate your cut-rate insurance offering really is ?

You may not even have to wait for your competition to hit you with a faux campaign or website; your best customers might do it for you, imagining what they wish your brand would announce. A toothpaste campaign announcing smaller openings so people use less product/brushing, or slimmer straws through which to sip XL soft drinks. Painfully real charitable contributions to community projects around each of your factories. Revised health insurance for your part-timer store employees that pays for extensive preventative care.

The tools necessary to create such content are readily available and dirt cheap, and they don't require expert skill to use quite expertly. Imagine your ardent supporters publicly challenging your brand to address a topic near and dear to their hearts, which would really box you in as to how you might respond (you wouldn't want to outright deny their most sincere wishes).

The Shell stunt and other issue-jamming activities could be the first, most obvious use of an approach that could force public discussion of any truths we'd rather address obliquely or in ways we can spin and control, if we choose to acknowledge them at all.

My bet is that your elephant is just waiting for his day online.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing-decisions consultancy, and author of the just published "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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