Marketers May Want to Steer Clear of Oil-Spill Crisis

And Ad Age Editorial

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More than two months later, the BP oil spill is still flowing -- and still providing a case study in the limits of advertising during a true crisis.

We won't delve into BP's attempts at advertising and its own struggles; enough has been written about that already. We will say this: While its PR efforts have been about as successful as its attempts to cap the well, what advertising the company has released has been restrained and as adequate as such things can be.

But what about others affected -- directly or indirectly -- by the spill? From the start, states along the Gulf Coast have been advertising heavily -- with the help of BP money -- in an attempt to convince potential tourists that their beaches haven't been destroyed yet or that there are other things to do.

Then there was Spirit Airlines, which thought it would have some fun in promoting flights to non-gulf beach destinations by making oil-spill related jokes. "Check out the oil on our beaches," read copy referring to bikini-clad women coated in suntan oil. Many consumers weren't amused, but the airline held its ground, saying it was unfortunate that such consumers didn't understand the joke.

Perhaps the most interesting response has come from BP's competitors. With the exception of Shell Oil, they've remained mostly silent. Marketers don't want to be seen as capitalizing on a crisis -- especially amid public outrage. Still, in the marketplace, the reward goes to those willing to take a risk. And that is what Shell is doing.

On the surface it might seem like a clever strategy to remind consumers of your brand name at a time when a huge competitor is most vulnerable. Consumers need to buy the product, and it might as well be yours. And it makes obvious sense to run warm, fuzzy ads about alternative energy as a rival's rig is spewing crude into the oceans.

But the majority of Shell's profits come from oil. And overpromising on alternative energy -- going beyond petroleum -- is one of many reasons BP is getting raked over the coals. A more honest approach would be to compare Shell's safety record in the Gulf of Mexico to BP's -- but that too is dangerous ground considering Shell's own record in Nigeria.

Sometimes a crisis can be so serious that advertising around it won't do anyone any good -- and can actually lead to harm. We're not sure yet, but this might be one of those times.

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