Why a Texas Oilman Is Spending $58 Million to Promote Wind Power

Pickens Plan to Reduce Dependence on Foreign Energy Faces Criticism

By Published on .

Most Popular
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- T. Boone Pickens flew into Sweetwater, Texas, on his Gulfstream G550 private jet last Thursday, then made his way to one of the biggest wind farms in the country.
T. Boone Pickens also happens to be building America's biggest wind farm.
T. Boone Pickens also happens to be building America's biggest wind farm. Credit: Frank Franklin II

As cameras rolled, Mr. Pickens walked amid the hundreds of wind turbines that dot the flat Texas plains, his slow Okie drawl once again the star of a TV commercial promoting his "Pickens Plan," which aims to turn Texas into the Saudi Arabia of wind.

The spot will be the next iteration of a $58 million public-relations and advertising blitz that started July 8 and has been both widely criticized and widely praised.

(Buffalo-based Joe Slade White & Co., a veteran political ad agency with 400 campaigns to its credit, created the TV spots.)

The campaign argues that America's $700 billion-a-year foreign-oil habit can be broken with an expansion of wind power that would free up demand for natural gas, which could then be used to power vehicles such as the Honda Civic GX.

'Swift Boat' sponsor
Since the Pickens spots began airing on national cable networks such as CNN and MSNBC and full-page ads ran in the likes of USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, the billionaire -- who gained notoriety in the last presidential election by helping fund the "Swift Boat" campaign against John Kerry -- has become a virtual household name.

With gas prices above $4 a gallon, it was a story that offered a compelling narrative -- an oilman going green -- and prompted a rash of national media coverage. In all likelihood, the $58 million in paid media from Mr. Pickens' own pockets has already been matched in unpaid media hits.

"Our goal was all Boone all the time, and we've exceeded our goals, which is easy with a client like Boone Pickens," said Melissa McKay of Sloane & Co., who is handling PR for the campaign. "He's very easy to sell."

Before the campaign, Mr. Pickens didn't have a Facebook page; now he's got 3,279 friends and counting. His Sweetwater visit prompted a local media frenzy. "Sweetwater Basking in the Glow of Television Lights," read the headline in one local newspaper. National media swarmed to the small town in central Texas, population 10,634, shooting segments with local development officials and residents.

Blogs are also afire with a mix of criticism and praise for the plan. Critics have pointed out that Mr. Pickens is pushing wind at the same time he's building the biggest wind farm in America on a 400,000-acre stretch of land in the Texas Panhandle.

Corporate welfare?
"Everything he is outlining in this plan will pad his already ample bank account," said Jerry Taylor, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, who likened the plan to corporate welfare, since it calls for $1 trillion in government investment and an extension of tax credits for wind companies that are set to expire at the end of 2008.

Mr. Pickens' own PR man, Jay Rosser, who handles public relations at BP Capital, an investment fund owned by the oilman, defended his boss' motivations.

"He's 80 years old. His net worth is in excess of $4 billion, and he's given away $700 million in the last five years. The bulk of his estate will go to charity," Mr. Rosser said in an interview. "This is about a realistic, practical energy plan for America."

Mr. Rosser also repeatedly characterized the buzz created by the campaign as "grass-roots." But it's clearly carefully orchestrated, using every new-media tool available.

At pickensplan.com, there are video blogs by Mr. Pickens and a Facebook-style sign-up tool that's already attracted 50,145 members, who have posted pictures, started heated debates on discussion boards, filled out profiles and invited friends.

Invested in the plan
A bio of Mr. Pickens on the campaign website carefully downplays the billionaire's stake in wind. Forbes magazine pointed out in a recent article that the Pickens plan lines up nicely with his business interests in Mesa Power, which recently spent $2 billion to purchase 667 General Electric wind turbines.

Mr. Rosser defended the omissions, saying Mr. Pickens frequently talks about his wind-farm plans in media interviews, arguing there's no reason to hide anything since focus groups have shown that Americans simply don't care.

"They want a plan, and they would like someone to invest in the plan and have some skin in the game," Mr. Rosser said.

So does Mr. Pickens have a chance of changing consumer views about how to solve America's energy crisis?

Ed Legge, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a Washington-based trade association for electric-utility companies, including Duke and Exelon, said he expects consumers to eventually get a reality check on wind's shortcomings.

"You can't depend on wind," Mr. Legge said. "Our customers are trained to expect the power is available and on. An intermittent source is automatically problematic, and that's what wind is right now. Wind stops blowing."

EEI favors the development of plug-in hybrids to solve the nation's dependence on oil, readily admitting that it favors the electric industry.
In this article: