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Big Oil vs Little Activists

Protesters spoof Chevron ad campaign

Date: Monday, October 18, 2010, 4:33pm PDT - Last Modified: Monday, October 18, 2010, 5:29pm PDT
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  • The real Chevron press release on the left, and the spoof on the right.

Environmental activists hit a nerve at oil giant Chevron Corp.’s head office in San Ramon on Monday when they made a phony web site copying and mocking the company’s new “We Agree” advertising campaign.

The deception included creation of nearly identical counterfeit Chevron corporate web sites with phony press releases and quotes attributed to people at the company.

“Oil companies should clean up their messes,” yelled the big headline on the spoof web page, which had Chevron’s official logo at the top. “For decades, oil companies like ours have worked in disadvantaged areas, influencing policy in order to do there what we can’t do at home,” read some of the text.

Pressure groups have long hated and vilified Chevron (NYSE: CVX) for supposedly not cleaning up toxic chemicals dumped in Ecuador in the 1990s by Texaco, a company Chevron now owns. It’s a very old story, where activists excoriate company executives and the company spends millions of dollars on lawyers and PR to make the activists look like looneys.

The battle has raged in and out of courtrooms in the United States and in Ecuador for many years, sometimes becoming a theater of the absurd.

For its part, Chevron responded Monday with full corporate gravitas, issuing a statement: “Unfortunately, there are some that are not interested in engaging in a constructive dialogue, and instead have resorted to rhetoric and stunts. Today, activist groups have attempted to interrupt the conversation by issuing a fake press release and establishing a counterfeit website, which are not affiliated with Chevron.”

Most reporters had likely not paid much attention to a new Chevron ad campaign, especially one as tame and tepid as this one. Give me Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL), Target Corp. (NYSE: TGT), Nike Inc. (NYSE: NKE) or even Levi Strauss & Co. for dynamic and interesting ads that make me slow down my TiVo to watch, but not hidebound Chevron.

They’re great, absolutely great at finding oil miles under the ocean off Nigeria or Angola and getting it out with preternatural technical wizardry, protecting it from terrorists who want to steal it or blow it up, negotiating contracts with arm-twisting foreign governments, finding ways through a Byzantine labyrinth of political regulations and delivering the refined product to a local gas station. Most people filling up their tanks have no idea how hard it is to get that fuel to them.

But though they have plenty of money to spend on advertising, Chevron’s got a pretty conservative culture, and you won’t see new, dynamic advertising from them very often.

At first, the thing that really drew my attention to this spoof, which I hadn’t heard about at all, was what I thought was Chevron’s own reaction to it. But even that, as it turns out, was a fake email ostensibly sent from Chevron corporate PR with links to a fake corporate web site. Thanks to Morgan Crinklaw of Chevron for putting me onto the further deception.

As far as what’s going on in Ecuador’s courts, where accusations of every type have flown about for years, Chevron seems almost ready to wash its hands of the whole thing.

You might think pesky protesters would bother a business that will have close to $200 million in revenue this year like a tick fly bothers an elephant. But they seem to have found a tender spot on the big beast.

Although the protesters have doubtless annoyed Chevron, made plenty of people laugh and drawn attention to themselves, they probably haven’t contributed much to any “debate” on the oil business. No one’s likely to throw away their car keys and ride their bike because of what happened today.

But no one’s likely to love Chevron any better because of its new ad campaign, either. It’s just not that simple.

See the new Chevron ad campaign here.

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