Is Your Advertising Telling a Lie?

Consumers Will See Through It, So Make Sure Your Brand Story Matches Corporate Reality

By Published on .

Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin

The story in London's Independent newspaper last week was unequivocal: Chevron has been fined more than $8 billion for causing an environmental disaster called by some "the Amazon's Chernobyl" (it has also been fined another billion for reparations). Texaco caused the problem and fought tooth and nail for nearly a decade to avoid paying on the lawsuit. It became Chevron's fight when it bought Texaco in 2001, and the company has already vowed to appeal the verdict. Its alleged victims are now preparing for the next round.

This is the same Chevron that is running a glossy "We Agree" branding campaign that claims it's in a conversation with people about saving the planet and, oddly enough, supporting communities.

Every CMO should take note of this dichotomy: Both stories are true when presented separately. It's only when you put them together -- which is exactly what I think consumers are going to begin to do more of -- that they add up to one big lie. So you need to make sure your brand isn't risking this sort of conflict.

Like most companies, Chevron is made up of different departments with different mandates and metrics. Its legal team has been fighting a lawsuit triggered by an operational division, using various delaying tactics reminiscent of the way tobacco companies used to keep terminally ill plaintiffs out of court. Chevron's lawyers have probably received bonuses for their accomplishments, and its fees to outside counsel have seemed well spent. The operational folks they're defending probably did the job of extracting oil to the best of their ability, which included dumping billions of gallons of waste into open pits and whatever other actions met the limits of law. Maybe they got bonuses for doing their jobs, too.

In fact, I choose to believe that most people at Chevron do their jobs the way most people do at most companies: They follow the letter of the law and whatever regulations apply to their functions, whether then or now. I don't care if the lawsuit is fair and I can't judge if any verdict or settlement could be just. What matters to me professionally is how these separate activities add up to a bigger brand statement, and I find it gallingly stupid that the company has dedicated significant money and staff resources for almost two decades to fight communities, and yet it recently decided to claim it cares about them, too.

Who's talking for the brand? Operations, legal or its marketing department? Which actions are more legitimate, or merit our attention: Its handling of toxic wastes, expenditures on legal fees, or payments for branding creative? What's the truth of the Chevron brand?

Ultimately, customers decide what brands stand for, and Chevron's leadership must be daft if it thinks its gas-station consumers don't occasionally troll the internet for something more than a pickup poker game. Ditto for any state or federal regulator they're trying to impress. We learn things about brands far beyond the information marketers want us to know, and actions -- real-world activities, not clicks or qualitative surveys -- speak louder than words. You just can't take Chevron's branding seriously if you know what it's doing in Ecuador. The campaign all but dares people to check up on them.

That's what The Yes Men did when the campaign first broke last October. These culture-jammers created a faux website and press releases through which Chevron actually admitted its infractions and insults to humanity and the planet. The modified "We Agree" content said things such as that oil companies should "clean up their messes," "fix the problems they create" and "put safety first." Lots of people took them seriously and applauded the doctored stuff, as if the company had finally addressed the dissonance between its base actions and lofty claims.

And therein is the rub: Why not tell the truth and then back it up with consistent action?

I don't know about you, but my gut tells me that oil companies don't give a hoot about alternative energy or wind farms, and I don't think they have to. Big Oil drills, retrieves, processes and distributes thick gunk that hurts the Earth as it helps us power or manufacture pretty much every product we use. No rational person expects this immense impact to be perfect, and we see ample evidence around us that it's not.

These issues are huge and they involve trade-offs that deserve to be acknowledged and discussed. A real conversation would express the sentiments of The Yes Men's culture-jamming and find creative ways to help people talk with one another about what Chevron's brand truly is and does.

Promoting an isolated POV isn't education, it isn't believable, and it doesn't really work anymore. Just ask BP.

There are lessons here for every CMO, and they're relevant irrespective of what industry you're in:

Go find out about the nasty battles under way in legal or the shady links in your supply chain. These activities are as important as anything you can dream up in marketing, so you can't risk being unaware of them (or purposefully ignore them).

Prompt real conversations about real things, not symbolic gestures or finely sliced examples that support your corporate position. These conversations are happening anyway, and you look even worse if you're not proactively participating.

If you can't come up with something to say that's legitimately and consistently true, shut up. Have the guts to tell your fellow C-suiters that a brand-image campaign ain't what it used to be.

Your marketing communications no longer speaks for your brand. It's just one touchpoint. Your goal should be to make sure you're not poking your consumers in the eye with it.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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