From Greenwashing to Godwashing, BP and Obama Fail at Image Control

It All Goes Back to That Green and Yellow Flower Logo

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
In the gathering absurdity of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the most delicious rhetoric so far has been delivered by Sen. Pat Geary (D-Nev.). I'll get to that in minute. Meantime, let's journey elsewhere in the Bizarro World nexus of the Economics of Image and the Politics of Blame.

First of all, BP's image problems did not begin when its oil rig blew up. Nor does its PR crisis date to the 2005 Texas refinery explosion, the 5000-barrel spill in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay in 2006-2007, the 2007 price manipulation in the propane market, the 2008 price-fixing in the Russian oil market, or the assorted industrial accidents over the past decade claiming dozens of employee lives.

No, the stage for public rage was set a decade ago, long before that kidney pie in a suit, BP CEO Tony Hayward, complained about all the spill-related pressure, "I want my life back." (Oh, do you, Tony? When you meet the oil-rig widows, be sure to mention that.) History will demonstrate that the reputation calamity commenced in 2000 when BP replaced its old shield logo with the so-called helios. This image was described as a paen to all energy ultimately deriving from the sun, but -- golly -- it sure does look like a flower.

A green and yellow flower. The implicit message: British Petroleum, the environmentally gentle oil company.

Greenwashing, they call that. It's been despicable all along, of course, but when events occur that so expose the image-manipulation to an Orwellian perversion of truth, well, the chickens come home to roost. I submit that the level of public rage is a direct reflection of having been suckered by a Big Lie. (It also probably doesn't help naming off-shore drilling rigs things like "Deepwater Horizon," which sounds more like a retirement village or tropical drink.)

Words matter. Images matter, and when you contaminate them you despoil your own communications environment.

Now every word that spills from a BP mouth is dismissed as just more of the same propaganda. Petro-hatred, I must say, feels pretty good, but it's ultimately unproductive. Even if subsequent inquires demonstrate -- as we all assume -- that BP skimped on safety to improve its returns, clearly nobody at the company wished for this blowout. Clearly BP, which is losing millions of dollars per day from the spill, would prefer to plug the leak tomorrow – or nine weeks ago. Yet, entirely due to its history of deception, it has lost even the presumption of diligence.

The anger has even spilled over and washed up on the White House lawn, where President Obama is under pressure to explain why he hasn't fixed the problem.

That's rich. Fix the problem, how? By executive order? By tasking the National Deepwater Oil-Rig Blowout Plugging Agency? Lowering taxes? Telekinesis? Mind-bendingly, the same critics who accuse the president of seeing government as the solution for everything, now berate him for not miraculously, governmentally plugging the leak. This is "Alice in Wonderland" material.

Yet there he was, looking gangly and slight at his massive Oval Office desk, defending himself to the American people without acknowledging the p.r. elephant in the room. Sure, he tried to exploit the moment to flog his clean-energy proposals, but mainly he was there to demonstrate that he's got this thing covered -- which, of course, he does not because he cannot. Just for good measure, he assured us that the Lord would hold our hand.

"The blessing is that He is with us always," Obama sermonized, quoting a fisherman's prayer, "a blessing that's granted even in the midst of the storm."

Godwashing, they should call that. Can't anybody in this tragic episode just do what they do, and let the image chips fall where they may?

Dumb question. Consider the spectacle of last Thursday's congressional hearing, at which a gantlet of legislators systematically bludgeoned Tony Hayward, not to elicit truth, which nobody expected to hear, but to posture for the cameras. It was here that Deepwater Horizon's deepest hypocrisy gushed forth, courtesy of Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas):

"These hearings on the Mafia are in no way whatsoever a slur upon the great Italian people. Because I can state from my own knowledge and experience that Italian Americans are among the most loyal, most law-abiding, patriotic, hardworking American citizens in this land."

Oops, I have that wrong. That was from "Godfather Part II," where the fictional Sen. Pat Geary, who had been so thoroughly compromised by Michael Corleone, defended the murderous don at a Senate rackets inquiry. Joe Barton's sound byte was an attack on Obama for pressuring BP into setting up a $20 billion reparations fund.

"I am ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," he said, calling Obama's intervention a "shakedown," and BP's capitulation a "tragedy."

For Barton, no doubt, it was. Over the past 20 years, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, he has led all House members by raking in $1.5 million from the oil and gas industry. Talk about "Beyond Petroleum." This was a job for greaseless K-Y.

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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