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Greenwashing Consumption: The Didactic Framing of ExxonMobil's Energy Solutions

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Corporate advertising campaigns increasingly use environmental frames to promote their products and processes, many of which are neither sustainable nor environmentally friendly. This study examines ExxonMobil's recent efforts at green advertising, focusing specifically on their widely aired “Energy Solutions” television advertisements. We argue that ExxonMobil's use of a didactic, greenwashed frame stifles criticism and discourages examination of ideologies of consumption by exploiting the ethos of the scientist and highlighting technological solutions to problems that are deeply tied to a culture of consumerism. The definition of green energy is controlled by those with the power to generate persuasive public messages about the sources and production of energy. Counterframes, however, can be employed to turn a questioning eye upon the solutions advanced by ExxonMobil. We issue a call for green frames that help citizens and consumers critically examine the ecological integrity of all means of energy production, and that call attention to the ways in which the greenwashing of research and development initiatives can dissuade necessary action, including reduction of US energy consumption.
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Greenwashing Consumption: The Didactic Framing
of ExxonMobil's Energy Solutions
Emily Plec & Mary Pettenger
To cite this article: Emily Plec & Mary Pettenger (2012) Greenwashing Consumption: The Didactic
Framing of ExxonMobil's Energy Solutions, Environmental Communication, 6:4, 459-476, DOI:
10.1080/17524032.2012.720270
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2012.720270
Published online: 02 Oct 2012.
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Greenwashing Consumption:
The Didactic Framing of ExxonMobil’s
Energy Solutions
Emily Plec & Mary Pettenger
Corporate advertising campaigns increasingly use environmental frames to promote their
products and processes, many of which are neither sustainable nor environmentally
friendly. This study examines ExxonMobil’s recent efforts at green advertising, focusing
specifically on their widely aired ‘‘Energy Solutions’’ television advertisements. We argue
that ExxonMobil’s use of a didactic, greenwashed frame stifles criticism and discourages
examination of ideologies of consumption by exploiting the ethos of the scientist and
highlighting technological solutions to problems that are deeply tied to a culture of
consumerism. The definition of green energy is controlled by those with the power to
generate persuasive public messages about the sources and production of energy.
Counterframes, however, can be employed to turn a questioning eye upon the solutions
advanced by ExxonMobil. We issue a call for green frames that help citizens and
consumers critically examine the ecological integrity of all means of energy production,
and that call attention to the ways in which the greenwashing of research and
development initiatives can dissuade necessary action, including reduction of US energy
consumption.
Keywords: ExxonMobil; Framing; Didactic Frame; Counterframes; Greenwashing;
Biofuels; Environmental Rhetoric
Environmental ideologies have transformed in the United States and in many other
nations to include greater consideration of the implications of technological
innovation, natural resource extraction, and the massification of commodity
production. Against this backdrop, perhaps best represented by the discourse
Emily Plec is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Western Oregon
University. Mary Pettenger is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Western Oregon
University. Correspondence to: Emily Plec, Humanities Division, Western Oregon University, 345 Monmouth
Ave. N., Monmouth, OR 97361, USA. Email: plece@wou.edu
#2012 Taylor & Francis
Environmental Communication, 2012
Vol. 6, No. 4, 459476, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2012.720270
surrounding the polysemic paragon of ‘‘sustainability,’ two consumer capitalist
trends have emerged. One is a trend toward the production, distribution, and
promotion of ecologically friendly alternatives to existing consumer products and
processes. A second trend involves corporate advertising campaigns that use
greenwashed environmental frames to promote products and processes that are
neither sustainable nor environmentally friendly. These campaigns often mask
harmful qualities and emphasize an image of environmentalism intended to inspire
consumer confidence. Examples of this latter trend in corporate identity advertising
can be found in ExxonMobil’s long-running ‘‘Energy Solutions’’ television advertis-
ing campaign.
ExxonMobil has flooded the United States television market with advertisements
trumpeting its efforts to research and promote alternative sources of energy, as well as
its advocacy for the environment. One might assume that ExxonMobil’s envir-
onmentally friendly posture was aimed at improving its corporate image after the
1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, an event studied at length by Check (1993, 1997, 2001).
Corporations such as ExxonMobil seeking to ‘‘green,’ and thereby enhance, their
image through environmental marketing is not a new phenomenon and has been
examined elsewhere (Futerra Sustainability Communications, 2008; MacDonald,
2008; TerraChoice, 2007). As Futerra Sustainability Communications, a United
Kingdom-based marketing agency, postulates:
Green has gone from the smallest of niches to a very desirable market all set to
grow. There’s money to be made and that’s the greatest temptation of all ....
According to reports nearly £17 million was spent on advertising containing the
words ‘‘CO
2
,’’ ‘‘carbon,’’ ‘‘environmental,’ ‘‘emissions’’ or ‘‘recycle’’ from September
2006 to August 2007 alone .... The deepest pockets are said to be Veolia
Environment, ExxonMobil, the UK government, BSkyB and Marks & Spencer.
(Futerra Sustainability Communications, 2008, p. 5)
Indeed, American consumers are inundated with, and potentially blinded by, media
messages of corporate environmental stewardship. This study examines ExxonMobil’s
recent efforts at green advertising, focusing specifically on their widely aired
‘‘Advanced Biofuels’’ ads which seek to persuade consumers that ExxonMobil is the
quintessential leader of alternative energy research. We argue that ExxonMobil’s use
of a didactic, greenwashed frame stifles criticism and discourages examination of
ideologies of consumption by exploiting the ethos of the scientist and highlighting
technological solutions to problems that are deeply tied to a technophiliac culture of
unsustainable consumption. Counterframes must challenge this discursive coaching
of resignation to a greenwashed consumer culture if we are to create a culture
committed to real energy solutions.
Our examination works at the intersections of science, knowledge, discourse, and
power by articulating corporate and scientific responsibility/accountability to
consumer knowledge/behavior. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve deeply
into all of these topics, yet each underscores the power and influence of green
marketing and therefore warrants the brief discussion that follows. We propose a
conceptualization of framing that blends the insights of seemingly incommensurate
460 E. Plec and M. Pettenger
perspectives in order to generate a critical method of frame analysis. This method
enables us to examine the form, focus, function, and motivational orientation of
ExxonMobils framing of ‘‘Energy Solutions.’’ After briefly reviewing the practice of
greenwashing in the oil industry, generally, we turn to the ExxonMobil campaign,
which includes a series of television spots featuring ExxonMobil employees and
executives promoting ExxonMobils energy strategies and innovations. A frame
analysis of their original (2009) ‘‘Advanced Biofuels’’ ad is conducted and compared
to ExxonMobils more recent (2011a) ‘‘Advanced Biofuels’’ ad, featuring the same
‘‘Senior Biofuels Scientist,’’ Joe Weissman.
Our analysis helps us to better understand how corporations such as ExxonMobil
communicate about complex environmental issues including our use, and sources, of
energy. In addition, we recognize that environmental frames can be mobilized to
either encourage or discourage individual/collective action and community building
(Pan & Kosicki, 2001). Our analysis suggests that ExxonMobils‘‘algae’’ ads actually
discourage consumer environmental activism and interest by positing a didactic
frame oriented toward technocratic and authoritarian values. We conclude with a call
for counterframes and a discussion of their implications for the US environmental
movement and consumer culture in general.
Framing the Environment
Several studies of environmental communication have analyzed interpretive frame-
works and media frames (see, e.g., Davis, 1995; Druckman & Nelson, 2003; Nilsson &
Biel, 2008; Sattell, 2001; Taylor, 2000; Yarnal, OConnor, & Shudak, 2003). Scholars
argue that the ways ‘‘global atmospheric-pollution issues’’ are ‘‘framed within and
among different arenas’’ can be important for risk management (Schreurs, Clark,
Dickson, & Ja¨ger, 2001, p. 354). Focusing on causes, impacts and options, Schreurs
and colleagues examine the ways acid rain, ozone depletion, and climate change are
framed in prominent global news media. In their study of Swedish organizational
leaders, Nilsson and Biel (2008) found that ‘‘decision makers in private organizations
were not guided by environmental values when expressing their attitudes toward
policy measures. Rather, goals such as profit maximization determined their
attitudes’’ (pp. 205206).
In the ExxonMobil advertisements we analyze, talking heads are enacting
organizational roles and acting as official spokespersons for the company and its
environmental views and values. As we will demonstrate in our analysis, environ-
mental efforts to promote a corporations sustainability are rarely benign. The
definition of green energy is controlled by those with the power to generate
persuasive public messages about the sources and production of energy. Counter-
frames allow critical consumers to recognize, and environmental activists to challenge
and appropriate, the messaging process. As Burke (1937/1984) reminds us:
A well-rounded frame serves as an amplifying device. Since all aspects of living tend
to become tied together by its symbolic bridges, each portion involves the whole.
Hence, the questioning of a little becomes amplified into the questioning of a lot,
Greenwashing Consumption 461
until a slight deviation may look like the abandonment of all society .... Often, the
defense against this is ‘‘dissociation,’’ which in time leads to ‘‘atomism,’’
‘‘splintering.’’ There is another strategy, however, which we might call the ‘‘stealing
back and forth’’ of symbols. (Burke 1937/1984, p. 103)
The concept of framing is applied widely in social and behavioral studies, in the
humanities and, as indicated above, in the literature on environmental discourse.
Many scholars and studies reference the concept yet ‘‘the term framinghas been used
in so many ways that it is not easy to give a clear meaning’’ (Yao, 2007, p. 418).
Johnston (1995) provides an argument and approach for using frame analysis to
study the discourse of social movements in order to reconstruct the mental frames
invoked by participants in the movement. Such an approach may prove fruitful for
examining the extent to which frames employed by the oil industry converge with
public or movement discourse regarding the environment but we must first
understand how the industry is framing the issue, and with what implications. Our
approach to framing and frame analysis draws from the insights of Erving Goffman,
Robert Entman, and Kenneth Burke, whose understandings of framing, while distinct,
can be placed in productive dialogue to yield a methodology for frame analysis.
The coinage of the term ‘‘frame,’’ as it is used here, can be traced to Gregory
Batesons (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Batesons discussion of the play frame is
especially relevant for understanding frame analysis for two reasons. First, Bateson
plays out the physical analogy of the picture frame in a way that elucidates the scope
of frame analysis as a method focused on a set of messages ‘‘intended to order or
organize the perception of the viewer’’ (Bateson, 1972, p. 187). Second, he explores
the relationship between frames and interpretive premises: ‘‘The picture frame tells
the viewer that he [sic] is not to use the same sort of thinking in interpreting the
picture that he might use in interpreting the wallpaper outside the frame ...The
frame itself thus becomes a part of the premise system’’ (Bateson, 1972, pp. 187188).
The introduction of the term ‘‘frame’’ in the psychological and psychiatric context
of Batesons work highlights its relevance as a concept aimed at assessing human
understanding. Yet it is Goffmans (1974) social scientific extension of the idea as a
methodology for analyzing discourse that is perhaps the most influential approach to
framing. It has guided subsequent research in symbolic communication, including its
relationship to public policy and environmental attitudes. Goffman (1974) defines
framing as ‘‘selecting and highlighting some facets of events or issues, and making
connections among them so as to promote a particular interpretation, evaluation,
and/or solution’’ (p. 5). Framing has further been defined as ‘‘the process by which a
communication source constructs and defines a social or political issue for its
audience’’ (Nelson, Oxley, & Clawson, 1997, p. 221). Despite his emphasis on social
realities, Goffman insists that he makes ‘‘no claim whatsoever to be talking about the
core matters of sociology social organization and social structure .... I am not
addressing the structure of social life but the structure of experience individuals have
at any moment of their social lives’’ (p. 13). In contrast, the present study examines
the structure of corporate environmental messaging in a consumer capitalist social
context. We are interested in the way frames orient us toward both the realms of
462 E. Plec and M. Pettenger
motion and action, to borrow Burkes distinction. To that end, Goffmans distinction
between social and natural frameworks provides a useful heuristic.
According to Goffman (1974), frameworks provide ‘‘a lore of understanding, an
approach, a perspective’’ and allow the user of the frame ‘‘to locate, perceive, identify,
and label a seemingly infinite number of concrete occurrences defined in its terms,’’
though s/he may not be aware of the framework being applied (p. 21). Though Burke
(1966) restricts rhetoric to the realm of human action, Goffmans terminology
highlights the ways in which rhetoric can be used to conceal motives by employing
natural frameworks.
1
Natural frameworks identify occurrences seen as undirected, unoriented, unani-
mated, unguided, ‘‘purely physical.’’ ...Elegant versions of these natural frame-
works are found, of course, in the physical and biological sciences. An ordinary
example would be the state of the weather as given in a report. Social frameworks,
on the other hand, provide background understanding for events that incorporate
the will, aim, and controlling effort of an intelligence, a live agency, the chief one
being the human being .... Motive and intent are involved, and their imputation
helps select which of the various social frameworks of understanding is to be
applied. (Goffman, 1974, p. 22)
While Goffman focused principally on the frame analysis of talk in his Essay on the
Organization of Experience, the concepts of natural and social frameworks are applied
to public discourse (advertisements) here. The present study combines Goffmans
definition and vocabulary of framing with approaches taken in more recent studies of
public policy, mass media, and environmental issues. Of particular significance for this
methodological application of framing are Robert Entmans (1993) discussion of the
framing paradigm and, specifically, his analysis of news framing of US foreign policy.
Drawing from Goffmans perspective on framing and alluding to Burkes (1966)
concept of the terministic screen, Entman (1993) defines framing as ‘‘a process of
selecting some aspects of a perceived reality’’ in order to make them more salient for
audience members’’ (p. 5). He describes the way frames highlight particular issues or
problems, direct peoples thinking about them, and suggest appropriate responses or
actions to take. He argues that framing, while it may increase the salience of an issue,
does not necessarily impact the audiences thinking about the issue. Framing effects
are particularly powerful, however, when the audience is poorly informed on the
issue or is not actively seeking solutions to a problem. In our view, climate change
and environmental sustainability present just such a case. In a later work, Entman
(2004) distinguishes between the ‘‘focus’’ and ‘‘function’’ of news frames with the
focus consisting of issues, events, or actors (p. 24). There are four primary functions
of what he terms ‘‘substantive frames,’’ including: (1) defining effects or conditions as
problematic, (2) identifying causes, (3) conveying a moral judgment, and (4)
endorsing remedies or improvements. Entman argues that the ‘‘two most important
framing functions’’ for public policy are problem definition and remedy (p. 6). Thus,
so long as the problem is defined as a need for more sources of energy to enable our
consumer lifestyles, ExxonMobils remedy*its ‘‘Energy Solutions’’*will continue to
play a role in US environmental policy.
Greenwashing Consumption 463
Entmans (2004) statement resonates with a study by Ott and Aoki (2002), who
analyzed news coverage of Matthew Shepards murder by Aaron McKinney and Russell
Henderson and found a prominent tragic frame at work in the discourse. This tragic
frame relies upon an individualized definition of the problem (McKinneysand
Hendersons homophobia and Shepards homosexuality) and the closure or remedy
provided by their eventual conviction for the murder. Borrowing from Burke (1937/
1984), who discusses comic, elegiac, satiric, burlesque, grotesque, monastic, and
didactic frames in addition to the tragic, Ott and Aoki (2002) illustrate the ways in which
narrative frames provide us with equipment for living with irresolvable contradictions
(though not always the best equipment for social justice). As Burke (1937/1984) writes:
One confronts contradictions. Insofar as they are resolvable contradictions he [sic]
acts to resolve them. Insofar as they are not resolvable, he symbolically erects a
‘‘higher synthesis,’’ in poetic and conceptual imagery, that helps him to ‘‘accept’’
them .... Each frame enrolls for ‘‘action’’ in accordance with its particular way of
drawing the lines. (Burke, 1937/1984, p. 92)
Frames thus serve as amplifying devices, highlighting some features of a circum-
stance, and orienting us toward some manner of action. The method used in this
study employs Goffmans (1974) social and natural frameworks, Entmans (2004)
substantive features and foci of frames (actors, events, and issues), and Burkes (1937/
1984) poetic categories (with a focus on the didactic frame) as complementary
analytical concepts to guide our examination of the advertisements. Taken together,
these concepts help us to understand how energy solutions are framed by
ExxonMobil, as well as what such frames portend for citizen consumers. Like so
much oil industry discourse, ExxonMobils didactic frame produces a rhetoric of
resignation, naturalizing consumption of resources and teaching us to put our trust
in industry solutions to energy problems.
Greenwashing in the Oil Industry: Coaching Acceptance of Industry Frames
Two dominant discourses surrounding ExxonMobils advertisements are energy
supply/security and the capitalist marketplace. In this broader context, ExxonMobil
serves as the supplier of a critical resource, petroleum, for industrialized states. As
ExxonMobil states ‘‘energy is the lifeblood of modern economies’’ and clearly
ExxonMobil seeks to position itself as the major supplier of this critical resource
(ExxonMobil, 2011b). ExxonMobil moves from this role of energy supplier to the
role of environmental proponent through their green marketing efforts. On the
surface, green marketing is not oppressive or manipulative. Some corporations
engage in activities that legitimately promote and/or protect the environment (c.f.
GoodGuide, 2010). However, some engage in ‘‘greenwashing’’*concealing envir-
onmentally harmful actions with the rhetoric of environmental friendliness to entice
and manipulate the consumer. Corbett (2006) points out that, among four types of
green advertisements, ‘‘image ads are most subject to greenwashing,when
corporations pose as friends to the environment but their performance doesnt
match the image’’ (p. 153).
464 E. Plec and M. Pettenger
As mentioned previously, many corporations are manufacturing environmentally
friendly products or at least greening their marketing campaigns. The business of
green marketing is booming. ‘‘Visionary green marketing has changed the landscape
of the commercial world and taken industries by surprise’’ as ‘‘sales topped $56
billion in 2006’’ (Marty, 2007, p. 46). Admittedly, some companies are making a
conscious choice to be socially and environmentally responsible. However, as
TerraChoice (2007) found in its ‘‘survey of six category-leading big box stores ...
Of the 1,018 products examined, all but one made claims that are demonstrably false
or that risk misleading intended audiences’’ (TerraChoice, 2007, p. 1). The marketing
company identified Six Sins of Greenwashing. The first and ‘‘most frequently
committed sin in the study, made by 57% of all environmental claims’’ (p. 3) is
particularly relevant to this study:
The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off is committed by suggesting a product is ‘‘green’’
based on a single environmental attribute ...or an unreasonably narrow set of
attributes ...without attention to other important, or perhaps more important,
environmental issues (such as energy, global warming, water, and forestry impacts
of paper). Such claims are not usually false, but are used to paint a ‘‘greener’’
picture of the product than a more complete environmental analysis would
support. (TerraChoice, 2007, p. 2)
Companies such as ExxonMobil often engage in what Lunau (2009) describes as a
tactic of the ‘‘eco-sell,’’ which entails ‘‘positioning a top-level executive as an
environmental visionary’’’ (p. 51). Lunau (2009) recommends caution, though,
stating that ‘‘...the biggest mistake...is greenwashingstretching the truth of
environmental claims which will lose consumersfaith altogether’’ (pp. 5152).
This position is supported as well by MacDonald (2008) who argues that, ‘‘so far,
fear of consumer backlash has done more to rein in corporate greenwashing than
enforcement action by the government [US Federal Trade Commission]. Study after
study shows that consumers are skeptical of corporate green marketing’’ (p. 70).
Green marketing sells, but greenwashing perturbs consumers. A careful analysis of
the framing of ExxonMobils television spots challenges the cogency of the
companys environmentally responsible claims and reveals the strokes of its
greenwashing brush.
We focus on environmental framing by ExxonMobil due to the prominence and
potential effectiveness of their Energy Solutions advertisements, but other oil
companies also partake in greenwashing (‘‘Behind the Lies,’’ 2003; Coover, 2008;
Kolk & Levy 2001; MacDonald, 2008; Monbiot, 2006; ‘‘Responsible Energy,’’ 2010;
Seele, 2007; Wood, 2001). British Petroleums (BP) the ‘‘first to move’’ ‘‘active climate
policy’’ was based partially on concerns about the ‘‘1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and
the Brent Spar’’, but more significantly by ‘‘internal considerations ...that leadership
and responsibility would make good business sense’’ (Kolk & Levy, p. 507). BP
(self-renamed ‘‘beyond petroleum’’) continues to advertise its green (washing)
campaign but has significantly scaled back money budgeted for alternative energy
projects (Macalister, 2009), and the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in August 2010
may have forever browned its once-green image.
Greenwashing Consumption 465
ExxonMobil, while advertising itself as green, has resisted significant shifts away
from its petroleum-based fundamentals; ‘‘the company is proud of having provided a
clear, consistent message on the issue’’ (Kolk & Levy, 2001, p. 507508). Indeed, the
company has actively amplified a greenwashed frame that highlights the belief that
climate change is not a threat and seeks to persuade consumers that oil companies
will be the caretakers of our environment. ExxonMobil builds its greenwashed frame
by highlighting and amplifying science, technology, and the expertise of authorities.
Framing Expertise: ExxonMobil’s Energy Solutions Campaign
ExxonMobil is not selling a particular product, though viewers might initially
perceive the advertisements for ‘‘Advanced Biofuels’’ as an effort to promote algae-
based fuels. Instead, the ads feature a didactic frame in which audience members are
given a brief introduction to the algae research of Joe Weissman, an ExxonMobil
‘‘scientist’’ (ExxonMobil, 2009, 2011a). What is being sold, then, is not an energy
product but rather the integrity and optimism of ExxonMobil. Featuring substantive
frames that convey moral judgment and endorse solutions, with a simultaneous focus
on actor (Joe Weissman) and issue (energy demands of US consumers), the ads draw
upon the power of social and natural frameworks. Social frameworks position
ExxonMobils efforts as intentional and innovative while energy consumption and the
abundant energy supplies available to meet it are naturalized. The didactic frame
functions to enhance ExxonMobils ethos in two major ways: (1) by establishing the
authority and good will of its scientists (and, thus, the corporation and industry they
represent) and (2) by emphasizing the value of technology as progress and privileging
scientific solutions to environmental problems.
Didactic Frames
ExxonMobils choice of substantive frames and their focus on actor (an expert
scientist) work together to produce a didactic frame. Kenneth Burke (1937/1984)
discusses ‘‘the didactic’’ as a poetic category that functions ‘‘by coaching the
imagination in obedience to critical postulates’’ (Burke, 1937/1984, p. 75). It is an
active frame which ‘‘leads naturally to oversimplification of character and history’’
(p. 79). Sentimentality, according to Burke (1937/1984), is the ‘‘weak side of
didacticism’’ (p. 79) whereas an emphasis on the magic of delegated authority ‘‘may
account in part for the tendencies in democracies to select heroes from the other
worldsof science or art, or even from technology and business’’ (p. 78). In this
analysis, the didactic frame functions both in terms of the overall informational
quality of the advertisement (teaching about the energy potential of algae) and in
terms of the authoritative characterization of the scientist/company. This combina-
tion produces a social framework that asserts that researchers at ExxonMobil
are actively solving our energy problems. Such a frame coaches acceptance of a
particular attitude toward history and society, one that resigns consumers to regimes
of energy power while simultaneously assuaging concerns that our energy consump-
tion is unsustainable. ExxonMobils campaign resigns us to putting our faith in the
466 E. Plec and M. Pettenger
power of industry, technology, and science. ExxonMobils didactic frame restricts
critical engagement with energy issues and naturalizes the delegation of solutions to
corporate authorities such as ExxonMobils talking heads.
Joe the Scientist
One of the principal ways the didactic frame is invoked in the ExxonMobil ads is
through the authority and approachability of a talking head, the only human figure
in the ad, Joe Weissman. As Burke (1937/1984) notes, ‘‘The delegation of authority is,
by the very nature of the case, the popular selection of a puppet to act as a public
convenience’’ (p. 78).
2
In the opening scene of the first ad, the audience member is
introduced to Joe, an ExxonMobil scientist who has been ‘‘growing algae for thirty-
five years’’ (ExxonMobil, 2009). Accompanied by soft, soothing music, Joe appears on
the screen in an open collared shirt, seated casually on a stool. He is shot close-up,
signifying intimacy and personal relationship thus strengthening the effect of verbal
appeals to identification. Laughing, he makes a little joke: ‘‘Most people try to get rid
of algae and were trying to grow it’’ (ExxonMobil, 2009). Joes smiling visage
reinforces his friendly and approachable qualities while he points out that
ExxonMobil is seeking unconventional solutions to environmental problems. Joes
use of the term ‘‘we’’ suggests that he stands in for ExxonMobil. This metonymic
relationship allows viewers to extend their attitudes and feelings about Joe to
ExxonMobil.
Color, signifying a natural framework, is first introduced into the ad as Joe tells us,
‘‘The algae are very beautiful. They come in blue or red, golden, green’’ (ExxonMobil,
2009). His aesthetic appreciation for algae further enhances his ethos, particularly in
terms of audience perceptions of his good will. Algae-loving, easy-going Joe stands in
stark contrast to popular depictions of corporate scientists. Joe is a scientist who
appreciates nature and is optimistic about our energy future. As he speaks the words
‘‘blue or red, golden, green,’’ images of colorful puff-ball algae molecules bounce
across the screen and are replaced in the next frame with like-colored liquid-filled test
tubes which then morph into a high-speed image of the headlights and taillights of
cars on a dark highway. This combination of the realm of natural motion (algae) and
social action (Joes scientific experiments; consumers driving) produces a lore of
understanding, to borrow Goffmans phrase, about energy consumption. The frames
reinforce Joes abilities and aesthetic appreciation while also teaching us an implicit
lesson about the ease with which an algae molecule can become fuel.
Wearing clothes of neutral colors and sporting a slightly shaggy haircut, Joe peers
through round wire-rimmed eyeglasses at the screen, only occasionally making direct
eye contact with the audience. He conveys a moral judgment about the potential of
algae by suggesting that it can ‘‘help solve our greenhouse gas problem’’ and
emphasizing that it ‘‘does not compete with the food supply’’ (ExxonMobil, 2009). By
conveying this moral judgment, one of the functions of the frame, ExxonMobil
asserts an enthymematic argument which assumes some level of audience awareness
of criticisms of corn based biofuels and helps to sidestep questions about the
Greenwashing Consumption 467
sustainability of algae-based fuels. Moreover, Joes ideas about algaes energy potential
are easy to grasp and therefore accessible, despite the technical and economic
complexities of actually converting algae to usable fuel.
In the second and more recent ad, ExxonMobil reiterates its greenwashed frame and
reasserts itself as protector of the consumer and the environment through science and
technology. Joe continues to be portrayed as friendly and easy going, standing to the
side of the frame in everyday clothes, speaking shyly, smiling and laughing. As the
camera closes in on his smiling face, he tells a story: ‘‘It was 1975. My professor at
Berkeley asked me if I wanted to change the world. I said Sure!’‘Well, lets grow some
algae.And thats what started it’’ (ExxonMobil, 2011a). As Joe tells the story of his
youthful enthusiasm and willingness ‘‘to change the world,’’ the black on white printed
question ‘‘biofuel from algae?’’ is re-drawn into bright blue and green puffy lettering,
evoking the symbolism of 1960s and 1970s pop culture and exploiting the
environmental semiotics of the colors blue and green. He also gains scientific
authority by referencing his education at Berkeley, a top-tier science university that
also symbolizes the hippie counterculture of the late twentieth century. As he
concludes his story, Joe laughs and the camera zooms through a computerized image
of the ‘‘new facility’’ that ‘‘ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics’’ have built to
‘‘identify the most productive streams of algae.’’ The camera then closes in on a fixture
among the buildings many green tubular mechanics and reveals the computerized
identification of a ‘‘blue green algae’’ molecule amongst a green backdrop of more
algae, suggesting the limitlessness of algae as an energy resource (a natural framework)
as well as the role of computer technology in identifying ‘‘the most productive’’ algae
(a social framework). Continuing the voice-over, Joe describes algae as ‘‘amazing little
critters’’ because ‘‘they secrete oil which we could turn into biofuels’’ (ExxonMobil,
2011a). The imagery shifts to an oily surface, shot from below, as Joe tells us ‘‘they also
absorb CO
2
’’ (ExxonMobil, 2011a). Once again, ExxonMobil employs a greenwashed
frame and magically delegates authority to Joe, all the while sidestepping issues such
as the cost of energy production from algae, the timeline for producing algae based
fuels, and the ongoing environmental damage from extracting and burning oil.
Sustainable Consumption Through Science and Technology
ExxonMobils core values are grounded in its longstanding reliance on scientific
claims (Kolk & Levy, 2001, pp. 507508), clearly espoused in both ‘‘Advanced
Biofuels’’ ads. The stark footage gives an aura of scientific and technical authority, not
to mention the magical ability to solve environmental crises without questioning
consumption. In the first ad, flashing lights of cars shoot across the screen as Joe
implies the freedom that algae fuel will provide. The second ad portrays swirling algae
transitioning to algae oil and then morphing into a tube, which becomes the gas
intake for the final image*a futuristic, red sports car. ExxonMobil amplifies and
highlights a particular social framework by demonstrating that the company is
working hard to enable Americans to continue driving shiny new cars, rushing to
work and play while helping the environment.
468 E. Plec and M. Pettenger
The ads also orient viewers to ExxonMobils greenwashed frame with their
numerous explicit references to science. Even if we miss the elegant, translucent
molecular model at the beginning of the 2009 ad, the images of algae and test tubes, or
the role of Joe as a scientist and authority figure, we cannot miss the black and white
scientific formulas on the screen (including one that describes the photosynthesis of
algae). In the first ad, the images are then replaced with the words ‘‘unlocking the
potential of algae’’ and finally with formulas swirling around the watery molecule seen
at the beginning of the ad. When viewed online, the clip is framed by the statement
‘‘Taking on the worlds toughest energy challenges
TM
.’’ The second ad uses computer
animation to swoop the viewer into a test facility in which long tubes glow green with
algae. One need not understand the science to know that an ExxonMobil scientist
does, and is working hard to provide energy alternatives for consumers concerned
about rising prices and environmental impacts. The didactic frames reliance on
science and technology coaches further resignation to industry solutions by suggesting
that anything is possible and that US consumer culture need not change.
Countering ExxonMobils Frame of Resignation
This article highlights the process by which ExxonMobil persuades consumers that it
is an innovative and environmentally friendly company through hidden social and
natural frameworks, a focus on an actors (ExxonMobil) remedy to a problem and
moral judgments about it, and a didactic frame which coaches resignation to
authoritarian rule by an extremely powerful technological and scientific industry.
Those with power create knowledge.
Unless we live off the grid, produce our own food, make our own clothes, and
transport ourselves without the use of petroleum, we use energy produced by the
burning of fossil fuels. Clearly, most economies are highly dependent on the
availability of petroleum and crude oil. Against this larger backdrop, ExxonMobils
framing of a minor component of its corporate actions as green may appear irrelevant.
To the contrary, we posit that ExxonMobils‘‘algae’’ ads are important precisely
because they discourage consumer environmental activism and interest by positing a
didactic frame oriented toward technocratic and authoritarian values. ExxonMobil has
consciously flooded the US television markets with numerous ads that emphasize its
green qualities and actions, while attempting to obfuscate the impact of fossil fuel
consumption on the environment through its funding of organizations such as the
American Enterprise Institute (AEI) (Sample, 2007). As a major supplier of fossil fuel
resources and with its profits, as displayed by its number one ranking on the Fortune
500 list for 2009, the company is uniquely positioned to frame energy issues.
3
With so much economic, political and social power derived from profit and product,
ExxonMobil can frame its activities as eco-friendly with few negative consequences:
Here ExxonMobil espouses a form of win-win environmentalism, which is good for
the natural environment and bottom line cost savings. With this new sleight of hand,
ExxonMobil has assumed the mantle of the Hippocratic Oath, becoming the agent/
protector of ‘‘life itself ’’ through the agency of technology. (Livesey, 2002, p. 132)
Greenwashing Consumption 469
ExxonMobil is framing its own ‘‘truth’’ about fossil fuels. Like Haas (2004), we find
ourselves asking, ‘‘When does power listen to truth?’’ The process of ‘‘truth’’
generation by ExxonMobil scientists reveals the underlying discourse on power and
knowledge. In which direction does the knowledge-power nexus flow? Companies
like ExxonMobil can produce didactic frames utilizing scientist-spokespersons and
manipulate media images and messages to appeal to technology-hungry American
consumers in ways that impede our ability to engage and influence energy decision
makers, as well as examine and alter our own lifestyles and consumer practices.
The power-knowledge equation manipulated by powerful corporations such as
ExxonMobil connects as well with a growing lack of knowledge about environmental
problems by American consumers. David Suzuki found that to the ‘‘average Joe, ...’’
Apparently ...global warming is happening because weve created a hole in the
ozone layer, allowing the suns rays to enter the atmosphere and heat up the earth
or something like that. The cause of the problem is cars, or airplanes, or aerosol
cans. No one really knows for sure .... People dont get it. (Suzuki, 2006)
These are the same ‘‘average Joes’’ (not the Joe Weissmans) that are watching
ExxonMobil ads, which aired frequently on American primetime sports and news
channels. Such exposure causes us to recall Entmans (2004) point that framing
effects are particularly powerful when the audience is poorly informed on the issue or
is not actively seeking solutions to a problem. Thus, the authoritarian and
technocratic values embedded in greenwashing campaigns such as ExxonMobils
may influence audience membersperceptions of not only environmental problems
but corporate-sponsored solutions to those problems.
Counterframes of Resistance
Some frames offer promise to counter ExxonMobils greenwashed frame. For
instance, Burke (1937/1984) argues that the remedy for the didactic frame is
adopting a ‘‘comic frame’’ as corrective (p. 166). The comic frame calls for maximum
consciousness, making us observers of ourselves while still acting, and has been linked
to ‘‘self-awareness and social responsibility at the same time’’ (Rueckert qtd. in Ott &
Aoki, 2002, p. 497). According to Burke (1937/1984), ‘‘The comic frame of reference
also opens up a whole new field for social criticism’’ (p. 167). He further points out
how ‘‘The comic analysis of exploitation prompts us to be on the lookout also for
those subtler ways in which the private appropriation of the public domain
continues’’ (p. 169). ExxonMobils use of a didactic, greenwashed frame to
communicate about alternative energy resources suggests that questions about our
energy future are best left to corporate-sponsored, trustworthy experts who can
explain the technological processes needed for progress.
A comic frame for energy solutions might include critiques of individual (and
national) consumption, reducing and redistributing energy reliance in collectivist
ways, or pursuing community-based ways of addressing energy needs. The Yes Men
(2007) impersonate industry executives, while speaking truth as power. Their
deliberate subversion of the expected rhetoric, for example in their promotion of a
470 E. Plec and M. Pettenger
human fuel conversion process called ‘‘vivoleum’’ as a response to deadly climate
change from fossil fuel exploitation, creates disjuncture and invites critique. Comic
frames such as theirs turn a questioning eye upon the solutions advanced by the oil
industry, asking about the ecological integrity of algae production, the amount of
other energy required for conversion of algae to fuel, and the ways in which research
and development initiatives can dissuade immediate action on pressing problems. In
this way, counterframes may enable American consumers to recognize their
implication in the greenwashed frame.
Comic green frames would be oriented toward the mobilization of individuals and
community groups, in contrast to ExxonMobil greenwashed frames, which
discourages citizen involvement and changes to consumer behavior. Such counter-
frames can be found on 350.org (n.d.) which endorses ‘‘creative forms of activism’’
such as the ‘‘climate art visible from space’’ project during which thousands of people
in sixteen cities around the world created large scale artscapes to create awareness
about the damaging effects of climate change. Other 350 activists in Ohio dressed as
referees and called penalties on Speaker of the House John Boehner for profiting from
and advocating for the interests of Big Oil. 350.org (n.d.) focuses on mobilizing
communities and encouraging environmental awareness and action in a way that
directly counters ExxonMobils rhetoric of resignation to corporate authority.
Yet it is not only comic frames that can offer a corrective to ExxonMobils didactic
frame. Avaaz.org, a self-professed ‘‘global web movement to bring people powered
politics to decision-making everywhere,’’ parodies the ExxonMobil campaign in a
clever ad which utilizes many of the same semiotic techniques of the algae ads we
analyze but with a different message. Avaazs talking head states, ‘‘One of the biggest
challenges for those of us in the oil and coal industry is preventing strong action on
climate change’’ (Avaaz.org, 2009). He goes on to describe the ExxonMobil strategy of
greenwashing (‘‘ads with fancy graphics to show you that we care’’) while lobbying
against global climate treaties.
Even the didactic can be used as a counterframe, as demonstrated by the
Environmental Defense Fund (2010) in their online video explaining ‘‘The Facts of
Cap and Trade.’’ Leonards (2009) ‘‘The Story of Stuff ’’ has spawned numerous new
‘‘stories’’ and growing awareness of the damaging effects of a myopic culture of
consumption. The original video, which also utilizes a didactic frame, features Leonard
alongside amusing graphics, art and vibrant color schemes to inform the viewer of the
effects of a consumption culture. The blurb notes that ‘‘itll teach you something, itll
make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life
forever’’ (Leonard, 2009). In short, counterframes offer the consumer alternative
frames within which consumer and environmental activists can challenge and
re-appropriate the messaging process. If a comic frame can emerge, then so too might
the angry consumer who does not want to be deceived by the sins of greenwashing.
In addition to frames that encourage consumer action, a frame that challenges a
companys Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) could break the cycle of consumer
resignation to corporate greenwashing. Waller and Conaway (2011, p. 93) examine ‘‘a
coalition of labor and activist NGOs’’ who heavily influenced media coverage of Nikes
Greenwashing Consumption 471
corporate practices. The coalition successfully ‘‘portrayed the company as an outlaw
organization that violated long-standing, internationally recognized labor standards
in order to grossly enrich its wealthy stockholders, top executives, and sports celebrity
endorsers (pp. 9495). The anti-Nike coalition was able to use ‘‘framing to call into
question the companys motives, values, and conduct’’ by connecting several frames,
including a frame of ‘‘collective action injustice’’ which aimed ‘‘to mobilize the public
and direct its indignation into some sort of punitive action against an alleged
perpetrator’’ (pp. 9596). Such a melodramatic frame has the potential to reconfigure
social relationships through its tendency ‘‘to polarize the social landscape’’ (Schwarze,
2006, p. 250). As Schwarze (2006) points out, melodrama ‘‘can help audiences resist
rhetorical appeals to the public interest that cloak environmentally degrading
practices and ultimately serve narrow private interests’’ (p. 250).
In contrast to discourses that define environmental issues in strictly scientific terms
and reassure citizens about technological control of natural phenomena, melo-
drama can foreground the moral dimension of all human actions and thus offer a
new basis for challenging those that contribute to ecological degradation.
Melodramas capacity to articulate moral concerns makes the frame an especially
attractive option when scientific, technological, and bureaucratic discourses are
blocking meaningful participation in public affairs and restricting discussion to
technical spheres of controversy. (Schwarze, 2006, p. 250)
If, indeed, consumers are prone to backlash against corporate greenwashing, as
MacDonald (2008) suggests, then it is possible that melodramatic frames could
function to create the kind of division between consumers and the oil industry that
can provoke critical economic and environmental consciousness. A future coalition
of organizations such as that which took on Nikes CSR may coalesce with the power
to challenge ExxonMobil and companies like it. Such a CSR frame would necessarily
highlight the environmental harms and economic injustices caused by the oil
industry and corporations such as ExxonMobil while mobilizing consumers to
demand greater environmental and corporate social responsibility.
We offer a final, and humorous, burlesque frame found on www.cheatneutral.com.
The website promotes a means to offset cheating in human relationships, in the vein
of carbon offsets aimed at helping companies and individuals become carbon neutral,
a greenwashing strategy favored by ExxonMobil.
When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in
the atmosphere. Cheatneutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be
faithful and NOT cheat. This neutralizes the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves
you with a clear conscience. (Cheatneutral.com, n.d.)
In this case, the viewer quickly realizes the illogical behavior of continued infidelity
(production and consumption of fossil fuels) with buying a ‘‘clear conscience’’
(continuing to pollute and exploit).
The purpose of this essay is not to promote any particular counterframe but to
illustrate the necessity of counterframes by analyzing the way some dominant frames,
in this case oil industry frames, discourage civic participation while encouraging
unsustainable consumption. Our analytical approach is not unique to the critique of
472 E. Plec and M. Pettenger
greenwashing and can as readily be used to understand the form, focus, function, and
motivational orientation of alternative frames. Likewise, the perspective invites a
critical pedagogy of green messaging, one that encourages the articulation of
scientific and corporate responsibility/accountability to consumer knowledge/
behavior. As Schwarze (2006) astutely notes, the ‘‘transformative and oppositional
potential’’ of any frame ‘‘lies in how it configures relations of power’’ (p. 103).
Moreover, he reminds us that it is not the type of frame that matters but rather its
kairotic qualities that account for its effectiveness.
ExxonMobil has spent a lot on its alternative energy advertising campaign in the
US market. Our frame analysis demonstrates how ExxonMobil didactically frames its
scientific and technological superiority for a presumably passive audience. Its
message is amplified by its power to control the marketplace and the media. In the
end, it orients us to accept the greenwashed frame and to resign ourselves to
unsustainable consumption of natural resources; echoing Bateson (1972), this frame
of consumption simply becomes ‘‘part of the premise system’’ (p. 188). Yet, frames of
resistance are readily available, and corporations may wish to heed the warnings of
consumer research firms that note how readily consumers turn against such deceitful
marketing practices by choosing more authentic paths to a green image.
Acknowledgements
The authors would like to thank Laura Lindenfeld and the anonymous reviewers for
their insightful comments and suggestions.
Notes
[1] It is important to note that, even for Goffman, the two types of frameworks are not
necessarily exclusive of each other.
[2] Fortunately, Burke (1937/1984) reminds us that ‘‘astute debunkerscontinually arise to
discover that the puppets are puppets’’ (p. 78).
[3] Beyond the scope of this paper is the question, how much profit is appropriate from an
industry that creates so much pollution and environmental degradation? ExxonMobil has
financially supported organizations that highlight its greenwashing frame. It has supported
the American Enterprise Institute’s efforts to debunk the findings of the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (Greenpeace exxonsecrets.org, 2010; Sample, 2007) and the
Competitive Enterprise Institute (Staniford, 2007) who has argued that we should all stop
‘‘kvetching’’ about how much money ExxonMobil is making. ‘‘Exxon profits range from 5
cents to 30 cents a gallon.... Still Exxon does make a lot of money. But what’s wrong with
that? If the oil business is profitable that indicates we might have more oil and maybe lower
priced gas in the future’’ (CEI, 2008).
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... Consistent with the pattern noted above where researchers identify how definitions are constructed, in this technical orientation to defining eDNA some participants note a need to be careful about how such a focus can "lock out people." As critiques of technical solutions point out, technical definitions can reinforce assumptions about the nature of problems, whose knowledge counts, and how the world works in ways that can amplify power disparities and ignore the range of potential consequences of proposed solutions (Plec and Pettenger, 2012;Kuntsman and Rattle, 2019). The following participant describes how a technical definition of eDNA could contribute to these kinds of exclusions and power asymmetries: ...
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ExxonMobil’s endorsement of a carbon price was greeted with both praise and charges of “greenwashing.” Critics claimed that such public relations maneuvers were not matched with environmental deeds. Based on the environmental communication of Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil, we outline three characteristics that indicate greenwashing: (1) acceptance of responsibility for environmental action, (2) insistence on an expansive role for fossil fuels, and (3) strategic ambiguity regarding the fossil fuel corporation’s commitment to environmental action. We demonstrate this greenwashing charge by noting internal contradictions within pro-environmental rhetoric of corporations, using the corporation’s words against itself (conciliatio).
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This article reports on the communication strategies that sports shoe giant Nike used to successfully protect its corporate social responsibility (CSR) reputation during the late 1990s. The article opens with a brief discussion of CSR and its critical importance to transnationals such as Nike. The opening also includes four research questions guiding this study. The article then discusses why frame analysis offers such a potentially rich approach to analyzing public relations controversies like this one. The Analysis section of the article examines how an anti-Nike coalition initially succeeded in imposing negative frames on two CSR issues and how this framing generated highly negative media coverage. The remainder of this section provides a detailed commentary on eight Web texts from Nikebiz. com and how the framing strategy behind these texts enabled the company ultimately to defend, even to enhance its CSR reputation.
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Rhetorical scholarship criticizes melodrama for its tendency to simplify and reify public controversies and valorizes the comic frame as an ethically superior mode of rhetoric. These judgments are rooted in the discipline's reliance on Burkean categories, a reductionist conception of melodrama, and an implicit assumption that social unification should be the telos of rhetoric. In response, this essay advances a concept of melodrama as an integrated set of rhetorical appeals. It uses examples of environmental rhetoric to illustrate how the inventional resources of melodrama can transform public controversies and oppose dominant discourses that rationalize or obscure threats to the quality and existence of life on Earth. Based on these arguments, the essay endorses a sophistic critical perspective that foregrounds timeliness as the primary ground for rhetorical judgment and refuses to treat any rhetorical frame as inherently superior to another.
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