Learning About Exxon Through Advertising

Exxon Fossil Fuel DinosaurSometimes a short piece of media can exemplify a whole way of looking at the world. An Exxon commercial I just saw demonstrated exactly the fossilized mindset of petrol-lovers. The ad sought to present Exxon as using technology to meet people's needs. What are our needs? Exxon's representative defined these as (1) finding enough energy, and (2) doing this in a way that won't damage our environment.

While I'm used to oil company commercials beginning with claims about the fragility of our environment, and continuing with some standard greenwashing claims, this one was different. Oil ads often take the form of exaggerating a company's attempts at developing alternative or renewable energy resources. For example, Chevron loves to remind us that they invest in wind energy research, despite the obvious fact that their research funding overwhelmingly focuses on fossil fuels. Slightly more absurd is the simple inclusion of green symbols like windmills and solar panels in an ad for a polluting product. My favorite example of this is the ">BP ad that shows windmills spinning behind a gas station. Watch closely- they somehow think the inclusion of background windmills will convince you that driving a petrol powered vehicle is NOT warming the globe.


This Exxon add was different, though. Instead of subtle greenwashing, it presented an earnest defense of oil exploration and exploitation. Fancy Greek letters representing math and science swirled around the screen, as a geoscientist explained how electromagnetic fields can be used to locate underground oil wells - even before digging.

Not being a geologist, or any kind of expert in oil extraction, I can't judge this technology, but I'm sure that before this year, Exxon didn't dig holes at random. Oil wells have been dug based on evaluation of where oil is likely to be since 1859. While I don't know whether the new technology touted in the add is any better than the seismology I learned in my high school Earth Science class, the ad claimed that in order to supply our need for energy, "we have to go further afield, we have to apply more and more technology." Of course, this is a good thing: "It's very exciting when you think about technology that not only gives you more energy supply but also minimizes environmental impact." More technoscience, according to Exxon, will cure the mess that technoscience has produced. How can this argument work?

Finding more oil is something we 'need' to do, because we'll inevitably need more energy, the ad claims. At the same time, finding that oil is 'exciting' because we can do it with advanced technology that will cause less harm to the environment. The ad claims to advocate that it is in support of using technology to meet people's needs for energy. Of course it ignores some key questions.

What about the 'excitement' of using advanced technology to generate clean renewable energy? What about using appropriate technologies (CFLs, daylighting, organic farming) to get better outcomes with less energy? Using technology to meet people's needs can be done without fossil fuels, but the ad assumes we need fossil fuels. This assumption precedes the ad's claims that we (1) need more energy, and (2) want to avoid hurting the environment, but the key assumption of the importance of fossil fuels is never explicitly stated. Why is this important?

In this ad, and in the mindset it represents, the distorting prism of petroleum has prevented the discussion of a green future, by assuming the importance of oil.


If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

Pilot Steve (anonymous)

No matter how you try to make us feel better your still committing terrorism!

Written in August 2008

don rexer (anonymous)

Nice picture of Exxon!

This is the free market at work. Freedom of speech too. With these hallowed principles, industry has the right to spend their advertising dollars to build resistance to climate action. Advertising works!

Written in September 2009

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Written in May 2010

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  • Posted on July 2, 2008. Listed in:

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