What Happens When the Brands We Work for Disappoint Us?

A Former BP Copywriter Struggles with His Legacy

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Martin Torres
Martin Torres
"Advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things." -- David Ogilvy

Back in 2001, soon after British Petroleum completed the purchase of Amoco, it decided to rename the company, simply, BP. Along with this name change, it sought to rebrand itself as a concerned global energy company. It adopted a lovely new blooming flower logo, along with the tagline "Beyond Petroleum," which it (kind of) still uses today.

The rebranding campaign was called "BP on the street," and it was all about listening to people's thoughts, ideas and concerns about oil, the environment and global energy. It featured everyday people, business people and employees talking about how an oil company should balance environmental issues with energy needs.

The advertising invited people to visit BP.com to continue the dialogue online. As the digital copywriter, my art director and I at OgilvyInteractive were asked to work out how that dialogue would best live on the web. I remember being truly impressed that an oil company would be so transparent.

The campaign that the agency created was fresh, progressive and environmentally aware. And I was excited to be a part of it.

Imagine my horror a few months ago when I, like the rest of America, saw the Deepwater Horizon rig explode, and then begin to sink into the Gulf of Mexico. Ever since then, we have been confronted on a daily basis with the constant barrage of nightmarish images that have been unfolding off the coast of Louisiana.

I couldn't get the images of the brown pelicans out of my head -- every inch of their bodies covered in oil, with only their eyes peering out from the thick, brown goo.

Like everyone else, I felt outrage that BP could let this happen. But unlike everyone else, I also felt personally betrayed by BP.

Believing your own story
Like many of us who spend eight to 12 hours a day building brands, I believed in the story I was helping to craft, no matter how small my contribution was. I believed in the "radical openness" that they wanted to portray. And in the following years, I would actually defend them.

"No, no, BP is different," I would tell friends. "They are really trying to be environmentally aware," I argued. And the company seemed to be really ready to confront some of the environmental issues facing Big Oil.

Well, it turns out that it wasn't that interested in "radical openness." In fact, The Washington Post reported that a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency inquiry "found a pattern of the company intimidating workers who raised safety or environmental concerns."

And while BP hasn't been able to plug the oil well, it has been very good at controlling the information coming out about the disaster. In fact, ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative journalism, has reported that BP has plugged the seeping information when it comes to the facts regarding whether oil-collecting conditions are safe for workers in the Gulf.

The idea here is not to ask you to jump on the anti-BP bandwagon. That would be way too easy. The idea is to ask how to deal with situations where the brands we work on not only disappoint us, but lead us astray. Surely every one of us that work on building brands -- from a creative, account or strategic point of view -- has thought about this.

What's advertisers' responsibility?
And I'm not talking about the brands in which we are fully aware of the nature of their business. (This comes from a person who was very briefly involved with Joe Camel in the early '90s.) I'm talking about the brands that are saying (and appear to be doing) all the right things.

We rely on the information we are given to us from our clients. So is this just a hazard of the business? As marketers, should we ever question the information we are given? Should we ever question the validity of facts? Should we require proof? What exactly is our responsibility so that we don't wind up feeling like co-conspirators?

And although BP's Gulf disaster makes me squirm professionally, I'm not sure anyone else in the industry cares. Is the whole issue like the streetwalker getting outraged that the john didn't treat her like a proper lady?

I'm not sure I know the answer. And while the unemployment rate hovers around 10%, I'm not sure any of us has the luxury of turning our nose up at working on brands that may, in fact, be doing what it takes to survive themselves.

In the end, it's the brands themselves that will suffer if they violate the trust they have built with consumers, businesses and the government. And it remains to be seen if the BP brand will ever manage to rebound from this monumental catastrophe.

All I know is that like the wildlife on the Gulf, I'm feeling pretty oily right now. But in the meantime, I'll be continuing to do the best by the brands I work on and try to keep myself on the right side of the truth.

Martin Torres is a freelance creative director and writer.
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