This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
When he interned at Shell, José Gomez made $5,200 a month. That was before he had even graduated from the University of Texas. A high-performing student in the UT’s top-ranked petroleum engineering program, he could look forward to a lucrative career in oil, earning around $90,000 in his first year as a full-time employee.
Coming from a working-class family where few of his relatives could afford to own their own homes, this was an almost ludicrous sum. But after a disillusioning summer with Shell, and a chance encounter with a Greenpeace activist who challenged him to think about climate change, Gomez made the difficult to decision to abandon oil. He left the petroleum engineering program and went to protest at Standing Rock. His parents were crushed.
“That was heartbreaking for them,” he said. “I think that was more difficult for my dad to accept than me coming out to him.”
Gomez, who now fights against oil companies through his work with the International Indigenous Youth Council, is a symptom of a larger dilemma for the oil sector. Where oil once represented progress and prosperity for a broad swath of the public, today, young people panicked about climate change regard the industry with suspicion and contempt. Companies are keenly aware of this fact and have responded with ads and social media campaigns aimed at winning over the next generation of workers and consumers.
Their efforts have occasionally proved clumsy and, in a few cases, downright cringeworthy, but brand-conscious oil firms — Shell, in particular — have grown increasingly sophisticated in their youth outreach, producing flashy YouTube videos and Instagram pics for their own channels, and recruiting social media influencers to peddle their goods in sponsored posts.
Oil is in crisis, and youth-centric ads are an attempt at a fix. In January, CNBC talking head Jim Cramer said that young people have given up on companies like Chevron, ExxonMobil and BP, believing they can never be sustainable. This has driven down stock prices and scared away investors, including Cramer himself.
“We’re in the death knell phase,” he said. “I’m done with fossil fuels.”
Two in three teenagers today say the oil industry creates problems rather than solves them. And like Gomez, few young people want to work for oil companies. Only one in four teenagers say they find such jobs even somewhat appealing. This is creating a real challenge for oil companies. The number of petroleum engineering students is dropping, threatening a shortage of qualified workers. The problem is so severe that analysts have suggested replacing retiring engineers with artificial intelligence.
“The younger generation, led by the millennials, have a profound sense of social justice,” said Parsley Energy CEO Matt Gallagher at an oil and gas industry conference in February. “It needs to be part of the fabric of the companies that they go to work for and also the companies that they interact with and they buy from.”
By and large, oil firms are trying to rectify this problem, in part, by avoiding mention of their core product — gasoline, the stuff you put in your car. In the first three months of 2020, ExxonMobil posted 10 videos to YouTube. Six of them dealt with renewable energy, biofuel or electric cars. Shell posted five videos in the same period. Every one of them covered ways to cut carbon emissions.
Imagine if Arby’s bragged about everything on its menu except roast beef. That’s more or less what oil companies are doing.
Often, these videos sport the kind of high production value reserved for network TV. The clip below belongs to a series released in 2019 in which Olympic field hockey champion Sam Quek, street dancer Jordan Banjo, supermodel Loiza Lamers, and Dutch TV presenter Jamie Trenite race across Europe in low-carbon style — carpooling, driving EVs, hopping on battery-powered hydrofoils. It has been viewed more than 28 million times, making it Shell’s most watched video.
In addition to brandishing their work on clean energy, firms will tout the many non-gasoline products made from fossil fuels— which include everything from helium to jackets, hats and mittens. The American Petroleum Institute followed this tack when it launched its Power Past Impossible campaign in 2017. Its Super Bowl ad began, “THIS AIN’T YOUR DADDY’S OIL.” Techno music blared. What followed was a montage of goods made from oil — spray paint, lipstick, a prosthetic hand. Gasoline made only the briefest appearance.
“I call it the ‘first date mentality.’ Nobody goes on a first date and lists all of the negatives, right? Nobody talks about their credit card debt and their toenail fungus on a first date,” said Tracy Arrington, an advertising lecturer at the University of Texas. “They’re trying to adjust to deliver on what people want.”
Oil and gas companies are also keen to promote the upside of natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal, helping to cut pollution from the power grid. Natural gas still generates a ton of pollution, however, though you wouldn’t know it from watching ads that cast gas as a partner to wind and solar, like the one below from ExxonMobil, which says they go together like chips and guacamole. Yum.
In one particularly tone-deaf 2015 video from Shell, two young women with neon hair talk about their solar panels and their hybrid car, how they’re trying to go vegan — and how they love natural gas, a key driver of climate change, “because it’s the most sustainable way to fuel their life.” The camera cuts to one of them cooking broccoli over a gas stove.
Chris Ferris, a marketing lecturer at Rice University, showed this video to his 14-year-old and 17-year-old. The pro-gas message made their eyes roll, he said. This is the difficulty of marketing to social media-savvy teenagers.
“They have a more highly attuned BS meter,” Ferris said. “If a company or a brand doesn’t seem authentic, but seems fake, they will sniff that out in a hot minute.”
That’s the problem with authenticity. You can’t fake it. So while it’s easy for companies to say they are fighting climate change, young viewers are going to be skeptical.
“If an oil and gas company called me up and asked for my advice, I would say that, if you are trying to promote yourself as a more environmentally-friendly company, you have to actually do the work,” Ferris said. “You can’t just put an ad out on social media and think that it’s going to be bought.”
When contacted for this story, BP and Shell were quick to defend their environmental work. To their credit, these firms have pledged major cuts to pollution. BP is aiming for net-zero emissions at its drilling sites and other operations. Shell has also pledged to slash emissions from its operations, and has vowed to sell more low-carbon energy, like biofuels. But with both companies offering few details, climate activists remain skeptical.
“Oil and gas companies like BP and Shell spent decades denying the reality of the climate crisis, and have spent billions of dollars lobbying to block climate action,” said Charlie Jiang, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace. “We should take these new greenwashing facades with a big bag of salt.”
By 2050 we aim to be a net-zero emissions energy business across scope 1, 2 and 3, in line with society. We aim to do this in 3 interrelated ways.
More on this thread⬇️ (1/5) pic.twitter.com/r2EL56kQnu
— Shell (@Shell) April 16, 2020
Big climate initiatives, and the ads that attend them, are essential to winning over the public, and especially young people, which is crucial if the oil industry wants to thrive in the long term.
“Every once in a while they’re like, ‘You know what? We need to look more green here so we can get more oil contracts in these other markets,’” said Jigar Shah, co-founder and president of clean energy investment firm Generate Capital and a veteran of BP. “They want a license to operate, right? What they say to shareholders is, ‘Look, we have to divert 10 percent of our capital to this other stuff so we actually have a license to operate.’”
Van Beurden also addressed consumers with remarkable candor in this video, where he answers questions submitted by members of the public, such as “What happens if we don’t meet the Paris Agreement?” and “Why isn’t ‘stop burning fossil fuels’ on your to-do list?” and “Hi Ben, what is it like to be in charge of a company whose products are threatening the survival of the natural world?” This is perhaps the best attempt that any oil company has made at authenticity, though its effectiveness may be limited.
The challenge is that, by and large, the industry is treating this as a PR problem, which can be resolved with small investments in clean energy and big expenditures on advertising. In 2018, top oil and gas companies devoted only around 1 percent of their budgets to clean energy. That same year, the five biggest firms, including Shell and BP, spent around $200 million on branding to persuade the public they care about climate change.
BP put more money toward clean energy than most other firms — a little more than 2 percent of its capital expenditure — but it is still very much an oil company, so much so that a group of environmental lawyers recently sued BP for suggesting otherwise. BP said the company has stopped “corporate reputation advertising,” though its recent net-zero announcement was accompanied by a raft of promotional videos. Such efforts may ultimately backfire.
“My biggest piece of advice is not to try to paint a perfect picture of the industry, because it’s not perfect,” Arrington said. “The more the industry fights acknowledgment of any kind of wrongdoing, the less the audience will actually trust them.”
Money spent on climate branding will inevitably have limited returns. So long as long as oil companies remain committed to oil, they will face intense scrutiny from the youngest generation, those facing the most terrifying consequences of climate change, Gomez said.
“They need to take a financial blow if they really want to change the world,” he said. “Do you want your descendants, your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren to have a healthy world to live in? Yes or no?”