Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beyond Propaganda

For some men, it's cars or a sports team. For me, it's oil companies. They fascinate me. Their size, their power, their reach. So I was particularly interested in the recent news about BP shutting down the United States' largest oil field, in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

I was interested in part because six years ago I helped create BP's current U.S. advertising campaign, the man-in-the-street television commercials. I can't take credit for changing the company's name from "British Petroleum" to "beyond petroleum" (lower case is cooler); my boss at the time came up with it.

That was the summer of 2000. We were pitching to the top man, Sir John Browne (now Lord Browne). At the time, I knew nothing about oil companies.

I started reading. The facts alone are amazing: 85 million barrels of oil per day used worldwide; 250,000 people born every day; climate change. I read Sir John's speeches and read about BP and its technological achievements and investment in hydrogen.

This wasn't my idea of an oil company chief. This was hope. Why didn't they talk about this stuff? And why did all big oil company advertising look alike? The typical helicopter shot of a tanker at sea, sunlight reflecting off the logo as it dissolves to a towheaded urchin on the beach. A voice like Morgan Freeman's saying, "At Gigantico Petroleum, we're on the move to keep the world on the move. And to fill this tanker with cash."

So we thought, what if you stripped away the corporate speak? What if you engaged in the debate that was happening with oil and energy and the environment?

We borrowed a video camera and approached people on the street, asking them questions: Would you rather have your car or a cleaner environment? Is global warming real? (Remember, this was 2000, when only one oil company, BP, had even admitted the possibility of global warming.) If you could say something right now to the head of a big oil company, what would you say?

It was an amazing experience.

After a day and a half of interviews, we had enough footage for five commercials. They were raw and emotional. The things people said were sometimes none-too-flattering to BP or the industry. At the end of each spot, we put up a list of what BP was doing in terms of cleaner fuels, alternative forms of energy, recognizing global warming and reducing their own emissions; stuff you didn't hear from an oil company. Before the "beyond petroleum" tagline, we added, "It's a start." No oil company -- few companies at all -- had ever spoken like this, confronting the debate so frankly.

They liked it.

Rarely are you faced with whether you "believe" in a product or service in advertising. This was different. This was serious. I believed wholeheartedly in BP's message, that we could go -- or at least work toward going -- beyond petroleum.

The campaign first appeared a few days before Sept. 11, 2001. It was shelved for a long time. Then relaunched. In that time, I moved on to other assignments and later another agency.

The campaign is running again. I heard that the interviewees are prescreened now, which is too bad. And last week, I heard that the pipeline in Prudhoe Bay is corroded and leaking. The company that claims to be beyond petroleum shut down a pipeline that serves up 400,000 barrels of petroleum per day. Maybe Coca-Cola's new line should be "It's good for your teeth."

I also read that the energy expert Daniel Yergin claimed last week that "new analysis of oil-industry activity points to a considerable growth in the capacity to produce oil in the years ahead." It seems unlikely that anyone's going to push hard to change our energy future.

I guess, looking at it now, "beyond petroleum" is just advertising. It's become mere marketing -- perhaps it always was -- instead of a genuine attempt to engage the public in the debate or a corporate rallying cry to change the paradigm. Maybe I'm na've.

It's just that I believe that the handful of men who run these remarkable companies possess something more valuable than wealth, privilege and power. They have at their disposal the truly rare possibility of creating a legacy, the ability to change things, on a huge scale.

I never actually met Lord Browne. He announced recently that he would retire at the end of 2008, when he reaches BP's mandatory retirement age of 60. I have no doubt he is a good, decent and exceptionally bright person. But imagine what the headlines could have read: "Lord Browne to retire; changed oil industry and the world."

Think of it. Going beyond petroleum. The best and brightest, at a company that can provide practically unlimited resources, trying to find newer, smarter, cleaner ways of powering the world. Only they didn't go beyond petroleum. They are petroleum.

The problem there is that "are petroleum" simply isn't a great tagline.

John Kenney is a creative director at an advertising agency. This comment was published in The New York Times.