WHERE HAS ALL THE OIL GONE?
BP BRANDING AND THE DISCURSIVE
ELIMINATION OF CLIMATE CHANGE
What on earth is a carbon footprint? Everybody in the world has one. It’s the
amount of carbon dioxide emitted each year due to the energy we use. Calculate
the size of your household carbon footprint, learn how you can reduce it, and how
we’re reducing ours at bp.com/carbonfootprint. (BP advert, 2005a , my emphasis)
As is well known, BP responded early to the issue of climate change. (Carl-Henric
Svanberg BP Chairman, BP 2010, 3)
BP’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 called attention to
the human, social and environmental risks, both short and long term, of deepwater
oil drilling. Prior to this catastrophe, however, one could be forgiven for thinking
that BP, the second largest global oil company, had become a renewable energy
enterprise.1 In recent years, its advertising campaigns have acknowledged the
problem of climate change whilst offering the corporation as the solution to the
problem: BP is the energy company that goes “beyond petroleum”. Yet, these
adverts have served to mask the dominant activities of the company, which remain
the extraction and sale of crude oil, one of the major contributors to CO2 emissions
and climate change. How, then, has an oil company come to figure itself at the
forefront of climate-change communication and activism? Part of the answer lies in
the recent history of BP’s branding processes, understood within the context of the
role of brands as relations of meaning within contemporary culture. Adam
Arvidsson argues that since the 1980s brands have become “spun into the social
fabric as a ubiquitous medium for the construction of a common social world”
where the value of a brand is to “build on its capacity to appropriate identification
with and attachment to the common: to appropriate political passions and affect”
(Arvidsson 2006, 3 & 88). I will argue that BP has appropriated a collective social
concern for the environment in the construction of its brand image, in order to
mitigate its own contribution, as a global oil company, to climate change.
Following its merger with Amoco in 1998, BP re-branded in 2001 (Wheeler
2003). This involved a change of name from British Petroleum to Beyond
Petroleum, an environmental aspiration symbolised in the new logo consisting of a
yellow, green and white “sunburst”.2 This image of environmentalism seemed to
translate into public perception: “in a survey conducted by the Financial Times, BP
was named as the firm which commands the most public respect for its
environmental record” (Monbiot 2002, 13). The BP brand thus utilised existing
discourses of environmentalism in order to create a brand image of corporate
environmental and social responsibility. Yet the organisation has been criticised for
“quietly halving its estimates of carbon emissions that result from all of the oil and
gas it produces” (Seager and Bowers 2006, 29), in what appears to be an example
of green spin. Indeed, while long term public perception of BP’s environmentalism
following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill remains to be seen, a number of
communication campaigns critiquing BP’s environmental image have emerged.
These include Greenpeace International’s competition to create a new BP logo
‘that better suits their dirty business’ (Greenpeace International 2010), and a fake
BP public relations twitter group, called BP Global PR, that parodies the
corporation’s messages and mission statement (BP Global PR 2010).
As a company that claims to go “beyond petroleum”, BP’s oil extraction
activities have been made visible through the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Yet, it
remains important to examine the discursive processes by which the company has
created its environmental brand image, particularly so in relation to how it has
positioned itself as being at the forefront of climate change mitigation. This chapter
analyses the BP brand through an examination of the company’s TV and print
advertising campaigns from 2005-2006, as well as some of its corporate literature
and website. I will demonstrate how through the use of the language of
environmental discourse, as well as the discourse of sustainable development, BP
is able to acknowledge the current reality of climate change, whilst simultaneously
erasing its own contribution to that change. By acknowledging the risks and
realities of climate change through advertising and branding, BP is thus able
discursively to eliminate the current risks of fossil fuel reliance by presenting itself
as the solution, rather than a contributor, to climate change. By doing so, BP
mitigates its own involvement in climate change through brand management.
Furthermore, this case study tracks the wider implications of the use of brand
management within environmental politics. The recent rise in “environmental
branding” (Financial Times 2007) raises important questions about the limitations
of branding within the services of environmentalism. Whilst the branding of green
values in specific relation to climate change could be regarded as a positive
recognition of the issue by businesses and the public (Climate Change Corporation,
2007), at the same time the very logic of branding is indebted to the promotion of
lifestyle through consumption. Addressing climate change ultimately requires a
change in (westernised) lifestyles, based upon a reduction in consumption
(WorldWatch Institute 2010). I therefore offer some reflections on the problematic
role of green branding more generally within climate change communication and
BP BRANDING AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Branding BP, Branding Consumption
We want to build one of the world’s greatest brands by building an organisation
devoted to revolutionizing the world’s relationship with energy. (Lord Browne,
CEO of BP, cited in Wheeler 2003, 176)
It’s time to turn the heat up on global warming. (BP advert, 2005b)
The issue of climate change is at the forefront of BP’s recent print and TV
advertisements. For an oil company that “was formerly a member of the Global
Climate Coalition (GCC)”, a coalition that “heavily lobbied governments ... to turn
public opinion against concrete action on greenhouse gas emissions” (Corporate
Watch 2006), this admission of the reality of climate change is quite a remarkable
shift of emphasis, even opinion. A recent advert proudly proclaims that “we
became the first major energy company to publicly acknowledge the need to take
steps against global warming” (BP 2005b). In 1997 BP withdrew from the GCC, at
a time when there was growing scientific consensus over the reality of climate
change with the publication in 1995 of the second assessment report by the IPCC
(Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The report stated that the growth of
greenhouse gases as a result of human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels,
would interfere “with the climate system [and] will grow in magnitude” (IPCC
1995, 3). Nineteen ninety-seven was also the year that the Kyoto Protocol was
established and international focus on the issue of climate change was high. BP’s
public acknowledgement of this issue was therefore consistent with the political
and environmental concerns of the time, but was also oppositional to other oil
companies such as ExxonMobil who continued to deny climate change.3 Alina
Wheeler observes that “every company needs to differentiate itself from its
competitors and gain greater share…. Brand identity is a critical strategy for
accelerating success” (Wheeler 2003, 8). BP’s acceptance of climate change
marked it out as different from competitors within the oil sector: a key strategy in
establishing brand identity.
BP’s re-branding in 2001 utilised this apparent environmental commitment to
establish four key brand values: performance, innovation, progressive[ness] and
green[ness] (BP Global, a). A green oil company is an oxymoron, yet the public’s
apparent respect for BP raises important questions about the role of brands within
contemporary national, and international, environmental politics, and more
specifically the relationship between environmental politics and consumer society.
Arvidsson has recently argued that “brands do not so much provide ready-made
experiences, as much as they enable the production, or co-creation, of an
experience, or … more enduring forms of immaterial use-values, like identity and
community” (Arvidsson 2006, 35). The role that brands and consumption play in
the creation of identity and community has developed following the breakdown of
traditional social relations based upon class and local culture, and the rise of
individualism, identified by Giddens (1991) and Beck (1992) as characterising late
capitalist modernity. Brands mediate our everyday lives, forming part of an
individual’s subjectivity and sense of community. BP’s new branding was based
explicitly upon the notion of a global identity for a global brand, with global
environmentalism as a core value. The different sets of employees, from BP and
Amoco, were taught how to engage with the new image, and to discuss the “ways
to live the brand in their daily lives” (Wheeler 2003, 178). The role of such
communicative processes in the construction of the brand is illustrative of what
Arvidsson identifies as the socialisation of capital—that is:
Capital (in the form of propertied symbols, and signifying complexes: advertising
brands, television series, music and other forms of content) is socialised to the extent
of it becoming part of the very environment, the bio-political context in which life is
lived. (Arvidsson 2006, 30)
The creation of the BP global brand—through, for example, their logo, their
advertising, their corporate literature, their website, and employee identification—
can be assessed in this light.
Whilst the success of BP as a branded experience is, in part, dependent upon
employee identification with, and espousal of, the brand values, it is the consumer
who helps determine the success of the brand. Although branding has been
criticised by commentators such as Naomi Klein (2001) for masking the reality of
the production processes behind the brand image, and satirised by the
“subvertising” antics of activist groups such as Adbusters, more recent academic
theorists give the consumer a more active role in the branding process. According
to recent branding theorists such as Douglas Holt (2002), Celia Lury (2004), and
Adam Arvidsson (2006), the brand mediates the relation between production and
consumption within late capitalism, involving the active participation of the
consumer within the meaning-making processes of the brand. For Lury, the brand
operates as an interface between the producer and consumer. For Holt, there is a
dialectical relationship between the brand and the consumer. Arvidsson argues that
the brand is a form of informational capital which uses the capacity of consumers
to construct a “common social world” (Arvidsson 2006, 3). The central role of the
consumer in the “realisation” and the “co-production of the values” the brand
promises is thus premised upon the primary role of consumption within
contemporary culture (Arvidsson 2006, 35).
Arvidsson examines the function of the brand in contemporary culture through
the changing role of the consumer within late capitalism. Up to the 1950s,
American consumers where targeted by marketers and advertisers as members of
distinct class groups (based upon income and residence). During the 1950s and
1960s changes to the ways in which middle class consumer culture was practised,
for example through the production of new “environments of consumption”
(Arvidsson 2006, 51) in the form of shopping malls and supermarkets, led to
changes in the ways in which consumers where targeted. With an increasing array
BP BRANDING AND CLIMATE CHANGE
of commodities available, and an increase in the middle classes, rather than
identifying the actual properties of the products, advertisers needed more and more
to promote the symbolic properties of these goods. This marked a shift in the social
meaning of commodities. An emotional attachment to goods was intensified, and
through these attachments the consumer increasingly made sense of her/his self, a
process thought of as providing individuality and self-expression. Identity thus
became attached to the qualities and experiences offered by commodities, i.e. the
perceived immaterial relation between the product and the consumer.
Contemporary branding is premised upon this immaterial relation between
product and consumer, in which consumers appropriate the perceived qualities,
meanings, values, experiences and ambiences invoked by the brand, as a means of
producing aspects of the self, identity and community. This can only occur as a
result of changes to the social structure within what Giddens and Beck call “late”
modernity (see above), with the breakdown of traditional class structures and
communities, and the rise of reflexive modes of identity, within which brands, as
relations of meanings, are embedded. Brands offer systems of meaning and
experience to the consumer by drawing upon the social world and appropriating it
for the brand’s value. As Arvidsson states, “[b]rands are deployed in the ongoing
production of a common sociality that characterises post-modernity. The use-value
of a brand rests on its utility as a means of production in that process” (2006, 94).
Following years of public scepticism, low media coverage and government
inaction, climate change has become an increasingly prominent political and news
item. A poll by GlobeSpan International which interviewed 33,000 people from
over 30 countries, conducted from October 2005 to January 2006, found that 90%
of people thought global warming was a serious problem (Eco-Justice
Collaborative, 2007). The BP brand has explicitly drawn upon a developing
sociality concerning the issue of climate change, in order to create and sustain its
own use-value as a corporation, and to present itself as a green company.
It is precisely because brands have become one of the central means of both
creating and sustaining aspects of identity and community within late modernity
that it is important to examine how BP has incorporated the recent social concern
for climate change into its branding processes and to consider the implications of
this branding of climate change within contemporary and future eco-politics. What
messages about climate change is BP communicating to the public? What effects
might these have upon public perceptions of this issue? What forms of action to
address climate change are being delimited and authorised by BP? What role does
consumption play in BP’s commitment to climate change mitigation? Given the
recent increase in ethical or green branding, an examination of BP advertising also
raises questions about the role of green branding and marketing more generally
within contemporary eco-politics. However, before discussing this issue, I will
move on to analyse the discursive strategies used by BP in its climate change
communications through an analysis of its advertising campaigns of 2005-2006.
BP UK and the branding of global climate change
The BP brand is a global brand, but the company’s advertising campaigns are
marketed to four audiences, distinguished as Global, US, UK and German. Apart
from the German adverts, the Global, US and UK campaigns are very similar, with
comparable taglines/messages across all three of these campaigns. BP’s UK TV
and print advertising campaigns will be analysed here first, and I will then move on
to give a brief overview of the US, Global and German print campaigns to identify
similarities and differences in the way BP has chosen to communicate climate
change to differing national and international audiences.4
Holt argues that consumers have become increasingly knowledgeable about the
advertising and branding tactics used by corporations. In order to be successful,
corporations have to create “the perception that brands provide consumers with
original cultural resources untainted by instrumental motivations of sponsoring
companies” (Holt 2002, 84). One technique used by brand managers is called “Life
World Enhancement”, intended to show the authenticity of the brand in relation to
everyday life, for example, through the use of handheld cameras and on-the-street
footage. BP’s TV adverts utilise this technique. One of the UK TV adverts poses
the question “Do you worry about global climate change” to four members of the
general public, three in London and one in Chicago (BP 2005c). Identified as a
white male cabbie, a young Indian woman, a white middle-aged businessman and a
young Asian woman, these individuals come to represent all members of the public
and the varying levels of public knowledge about climate change. Their responses
to the question express individual worries alongside collective concerns and
responsibilities, for example: “I worry because I don’t know much about it” (young
Indian woman); “it’s something that we need to deal with and we need to deal with
it today” (young Asian woman). By directing the question to “you”, with the
responses referring to “I” and “we”, BP is able linguistically to remove itself as a
contributor to the problem of climate change, instead offering itself as an active
participant in the solution: “Our energy efficiency projects have reduced emissions
by over 4 million tonnes since 2001”. There is no explanation of these energy
efficiency projects. Instead the viewer is left with the impression that BP is not
only in touch with public opinion but actually ahead of the game when it comes to
combating climate change.
The second TV advert invites a yes or no answer by posing the question
“Could oil companies do more to improve our environment?” (BP 2005d). By
doing so, the contradiction within the question is effaced and is replaced by a
future possibility, that is, that an oil company could help the environment without
abandoning its dominant entrepreneurial activities. The response by the member of
the public offers a vision of corporate social and environmental responsibility
within the context of a late capitalist economy:
If these guys want to be in business, in 50 years time, then … like the
responsibility to me and my next generation, and my children and, if they want to
BP BRANDING AND CLIMATE CHANGE
be responsible for their … companies, for the next generation of owners of that
company, then they’ve got to be investing now in these other alternative, ah,
energy sources, I guess. (BP 2005d)
The answer perfectly encapsulates the progressive and green values articulated by
the BP brand image which incorporates a variety of consumers: the public, the
environment and the shareholders will all benefit from BP’s progressive thinking
and investment strategies. BP’s response in the advert is to agree, presenting solar
power and natural gas as the progressive alternative energy resources. It claims that
“over the last 30 years, we have brought solar power to 160 countries worldwide”.
The benign paternalism of this statement masks the profit-driven incentives of the
company and the reality that solar along with other renewables constituted
approximately 1.6% of the company’s capital investment in 2005.5 BP states that
“[a]lmost 40% of our energy portfolio now consists of cleaner natural gas”. Gas is
offered as an alternative energy source for future generations. Alternative here
means not oil, rather than renewable. Yet gas is conferred with renewable qualities
through its placement next to solar as part of future cleaner energy. Whilst natural
gas does have fewer CO2 emissions than oil (around 20% over a 50 year period
according to the World Energy Council 2006), it is still a fossil fuel and therefore
cannot be part of an energy plan that is straightforwardly carbon neutral.
Furthermore, given the estimates of increased energy needs over the next 10 to 20
years, any benefits from a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions as a result of using gas
rather than oil would be counteracted by the world’s growing energy consumption.
In the print advertisements gas is consistently offered as the “clean” alternative
to oil, communicated through the pun “We’ve been burning the midnight natural
gas” (BP 2005e) (Fig. 8.1) and “It’s time to think outside the barrel” (BP 2005f).
The temporal prefix, “Its time” signifies the need for a change that has been
coming, with BP as the company which has been preparing for, and is now
instigating, this change. References to carbon in the discourses of climate change
appear across the range of adverts, for example: “It’s time to go on a low carbon
diet” (BP 2005g) and: “Switch on to lower carbon emissions” (BP 2005h). Again,
carbon reduction is offered primarily through gas. BP markets gas in its current and
future energy plans as being integral to the fight against climate change by linking
it to the concept of carbon reduction and “cleaner” fuel. There is no mention of a
move towards a no-carbon, or carbon-neutral future through zero emissions.
Like the TV adverts, the print advertisements present gas alongside renewable
energy forms, and in doing so set all of these up as equivalents. The low-carbon
diet consists of “cleaner fuels, natural gas, hydrogen, solar, wind” (BP 2005g).
“Cleaner fuels” actually refers to BP Ultimate, a petroleum product which has had
some of its pollutants removed. The purported clean qualities of this product are
communicated in the ad as: “It’s time for fuels to come clean” (BP 2005i). The
statement plays on the notion that companies are dishonest about their practices,
but instead puts the blame upon consumers for not using their product. So: “If all
drivers in the UK were to use BP Ultimate, the reduction in harmful emissions
would be equivalent to taking 1 million cars from the road”. Consumers are
targeted for bad practices, with BP figuring as the responsible company providing
environmentally-friendly products. It reverses the tactics of consumer boycotts by
castigating consumers for not buying the right products. The advert does not
question car use, nor the fact that if all UK drivers were to use BP Ultimate then
BP would be an even more profitable company. As Holt argues, “the cultural
structuring of consumption maintains political support for the market system,
expands markets, and increases profits” (2002, 71). In this instance, the
environmental credentials of consumers, rather than those of the company, are
critiqued in an effort to increase profits.
The economic discourse of late capitalism is deployed in a series of adverts
which equate the business activities and financial concerns/aspirations of workers
with those of BP. “Oil, natural gas, solar hydrogen. We believe in a diversified
portfolio, too” (BP 2005j). Diversification is characteristic of what Beck calls “the
‘free wage labour’ in modern capitalism” identified by “the dynamics of labour
market processes, labour mobility, education and changing occupation”. Here
individualisation as a condition of modern capitalism is based upon “individual
mobility and the mobile individual required by the labour market” (Beck 1992, 87-
88). The risks equated with living in a more mobile and less fixed labour market
economy require a more reflexive identity within a changing market, hence the
need for a diverse and always changing biography (or CV). BP, however, does not
criticise the consequent social and personal risks and instabilities, instead
conferring status upon the worker by equating “their” activities with those of BP’s
as examples of good socio-business practice. The ads “Improve your capital” (BP
2005k) (Fig. 8.2) and the idea of “capital gains” (BP 2005l) interpellates the
business person, potential shareholders and consumers, through the expectations of
late capitalism. However, in both the adverts, the term “capital” actually refers to
the city: “We have introduced cleaner fuels to over 100 cities worldwide, including
London”. The improvement of individual financial capital is equated with
improvements in a collective social and environmental identity—global capitalism
equals expanding global environmental good.
BP BRANDING AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Fig. 8.1 BP UK print advertisement.
Throughout the TV and print adverts, a set of reoccurring words appears:
clean, cleaner, lower, we, we’ve, natural gas, less carbon, low carbon, lower
carbon emissions, reduce, improve, it’s time. Adjectives such as “lower” and
“cleaner” are used without connection to a particular referent; lower than what,
cleaner than what? They signify positive action without having to specify what this
is. Within the discourse of the adverts, climate change is linked to carbon, which is
further linked to gas as a low/lower/clean/cleaner carbon fuel. Gas, however,
remains a major contributor to climate change through carbon dioxide emissions.
Renewables hardly figure at all in BP’s vision for alternative energy. Overall, the
adverts signify that BP is in the process of addressing climate change and has been
doing so for a while, figuring climate change as a past, present and future concern
for the company. The energy sources offered, however, contribute little to a no-
carbon future, instead contributing to a view of climate change as not so much a
present reality but rather a future threat capable of being addressed by BP.
Fig. 8.2 BP UK print advert, 2005.
The question posed by this chapter—“Where has all the oil gone?”—appears to
have been answered in two British broadsheet advertisements that appeared in May
2006. Given that BP’s recent campaign has been promoting every form of energy
other than oil, the latest adverts re-establish oil as part of the company’s energy
activities. The first advert states “Exploring new ways to find oil”. By using the
same visual format as the earlier adverts, this one is discursively linked with the
discourse on climate change already established. The advert tells us that:
Fossil fuels won’t disappear tomorrow, though they will get harder to find. By
developing innovative technology like BP’s Advanced Seismic Imaging, we’ve
been able to make discoveries that were unthinkable only a decade ago … Most
importantly, with more accurate data we can drill fewer wells, reducing our impact
upon the environment. (BP 2006a)
The advert shocks precisely because it identifies BP with oil production. However,
by referencing innovative technology, the advert makes discursive links to the
discourse of climate change in the previous adverts through the belief in
technology as a solution. This is further reinforced by reference to the environment
as the beneficiary of technological advancements.
The second print advertisement, “Exploring new ways to live without it”,
follows on the next page and acts in conversation with the first. As in New
Labour’s discourse of the “Third Way”, two seemingly incompatible activities and
ideals are brought together.6 BP is continuing with oil exploration and production,
whilst also exploring ways to live without it. Here, living without it means using
gas, which is “the cleanest form of fossil fuel” (BP 2006b). These adverts quite
explicitly identify the main activities of the company as oil production, but do so in
a way that presents them in light of future progress. In doing so, climate change
becomes a future event rather than a present reality and one that will be fixed by
technology developed by BP. Such a commitment to the recuperative potential of
technology is characteristic of the paradox that underpins risk society (Beck 1992):
that modern environmental risks such as climate change are technologically
induced, yet science and technology are offered as the means of addressing such
risks. Furthermore, these two adverts articulate the real substance of BP’s
commitment to tackling climate change hidden behind the rhetoric: a view
explained in its annual report, where we find that “BP has contributed significantly
to the evolving public and policy debate on climate change. We support a
precautionary principle, even though we recognise that aspects of the science
remain the subject of expert debate and are not fully proved” (BP 2005, 19). There
is, however, scientific consensus over the reality of human-induced climate change
(IPCC 2001). BP’s high profile advertising campaign thus disingenuously presents
an image of the company as accepting the fact of climate change, when this
acceptance is clearly ambivalent, and subject to economic self-interests, where the
power of technology is both poison and cure:
Fossil fuels currently supply the majority of all the primary energy people use and
will remain fundamental to global energy supply for at least the next 20-30 years.
Innovation to reduce the CO2 emissions from the use of fossil fuels will be a major
contributor to stabilisation during this period. (BP 2005, 19)
BP BRANDING AND CLIMATE CHANGE
BP’s US and German climate change communication
The US print advertisements use a similar format to those deployed in the UK,
but it is noticeable that more explanatory text accompanies the taglines than in the
UK versions. A series of advertisements invoke the concept of the carbon
footprint—“What on earth is a carbon footprint?” (BP 2005m), “Reducing our
footprint. Here’s where we stand” (BP 2005n), “What size is your carbon
footprint?” (BP 2005o)—in seeking to explain to the audience what a carbon
footprint is, but in a way which assigns responsibility for climate impact to the
individual, while BP registers its own concerns by appearing already to be doing
something about it. By figuring itself as a credible knowledge source about climate
change, BP is able to mitigate its contribution to climate change through the
temporal framing of its own, already-existing, environmental knowledge and
action. Whilst a range of the UK print adverts deployed the discourses of late
capitalism by interpellating the reflexive identity of the (London) worker, the US
adverts place the audience more specifically as the consumer. In adverts such as
“What’s in store for solar?” (BP 2005p) and “Solar energy, aisle four” (BP 2005q),
the discourse and practice of consumption are used to promote climate change
action through the purchasing of solar panels. Again, BP places responsibility for
combating climate change upon the individual consumer, with BP aiding the
consumer’s activities through the building of a solar panel manufacturing facility
Consumption is an integral process of (western/capitalist) nation building, and
has become more relevant in the US following September 11, 2001 (Silberstein
2002). Similarly, the concept of home is both a real and imaginary space/place
inscribed in the formation of national identity, particularly in US history and
culture. As Diane F. Alters comments, the concept of the 1950s US nuclear family
“persists in the form of yearning and nostalgia in popular culture” (2004, 58). BP
draws upon the discursive relations between home and nation to communicate
ideas about climate change, as shown in these two adverts: “For finding energy,
there’s no place like home” (BP 2005r) (Fig. 8.3) and “For saving energy, there’s
no place like work” (BP 2005s). The first advert invokes Dorothy’s words from the
iconic (and nostalgic) Hollywood movie, The Wizard of Oz (1939)—“there’s no
place like home”—in order to present BP’s “decade long $15 billion investment in
the Gulf of Mexico” as a strategic national endeavour. The new energy BP refers to
is “natural gas production”, framed by BP in other adverts as the answer to climate
change. By framing gas in terms of exploration and production, BP discursively
links gas to oil, serving to reinforce the associative links between home and oil
exploration/production in the reinscription of a modern US national identity, and
thus in the figuration of BP as a nationally-invested US global brand. The second
advert playfully substitutes the word “home” for “work” and utilises the figuration
of home within the national psyche in order to promote BP’s activities in a positive
light, and to lend further credibility to the company’s environmental credentials.
Fig. 8.3 BP US print advert, 2005
Overall, the US print adverts differ from those for the UK by giving more
specific examples of BP’s US activities. In doing so, climate change is figured as a
national concern where national endeavours, from BP and consumers alike, are
fundamental to combating climate change. Given the context of mainstream US
politics during this period, with George Bush’s removal of the US from the Kyoto
Protocol in 2001, it is significant that in the US adverts the audience is
interpellated through more specific references to home and nation, in order to
frame climate change within a national context and create a cultural relevance for
the audience. The more specific deployment of consumerist discourse also links in
with US economic development and establishes citizen participation in combating
climate change through consumption processes. Interestingly, the global BP print
adverts combine examples from the UK and the US in order to cement the global
ideology of BP’s activities.
BP BRANDING AND CLIMATE CHANGE
In contrast to the UK, US and Global print adverts, those targeted at a German
audience are significantly different in their visual format. Both of the adverts
feature people in specific locations: one is of a petrol station owner outside his
petrol station; the other is of an architect on the roof of Munich airport. In the first
advert, the BP brand is specifically localised through its affiliation with the
national German brand Aral: “In Germany BP puts deliberate emphasis upon the
Aral brand” (BP 2005t).7 The premise of the advert is to promote the consumption
of BP Ultimate, not as an explicit means of combating climate change (as
portrayed in the global, UK and US adverts), but as a means of consuming the BP
brand values: “Apart from filling up with premium petrol like Ultimate, you also
fuel up the international know-how of BP. Exactly like 2.5 million other customers
daily”. Thus, in contrast to the other adverting campaigns, these adverts start on the
basis of an existing national identity to which BP can contribute through its global
knowledge. The more explicit reference to the BP brand is deployed as a means of
helping a national audience access a global identity and community.
In their analysis of the mediatisation of climate change in Belgium, France and
Germany, Marc Mormont and Christine Dasnoy found that in Germany a public
communication model dominated. Here, the media formed a “structured space”,
where public concern was “considered normal and justified because attacks on the
environment are serious and affect ordinary people”. This was in specific contrast
to France, where “public demands” were “deemed childish” (1995, 51). The
relative credibility given to the German public’s participation in environmental
issues demonstrates a strong national identity and community in relation to the
environment. Such an identification appears to manifest in BP’s adverts for
German audiences, where the purported environmentalism of BP is downplayed
and participation in a global community is instead promoted.
In the second advert, more explicit reference to BP’s environmental brand
values is made. Standing on top of a solar panelled roof, Robert Noch, the architect
for Terminal 2 of Munich Airport, declares, “You can’t smell it, you can’t see it. Is
there any better energy than the sun?” (BP 2005u). In the right hand corner of the
advert, the text tells us that “In Europe, BP is the market leader in solar energy. In
Munich it has installed the biggest solar installation ever built at an airport. With
the best prospect. Ultimately the sun is going to shine for another 4.5 billion
years”. The BP brand and German industry are shown to be mutually beneficial.
Although BP assumes responsibility for the building of the installation, it also
invokes an enterprising nation by identifying Munich airport as the first to commit
to the power of solar energy, and therefore to a sustainable future. Both adverts do
not refer explicitly to climate change, but instead position the audience as already
knowledgeable about the issue. The first advert positions BP as a global brand in
which Germany can participate; the second places BP within the context of
Europe, where BP and Germany are already positioned as leaders, through existing
developments in Munich. Thus, through reference to an existing German
environmentalism—a “common social world” (Arvidsson 2006, 3)—and to a
European identity in which Germany is presented as taking on a central and
progressive role, BP calls upon Germany to participate globally and in doing so
depicts BP itself as a green and forward-thinking brand.
BP and the discourse of sustainable development
I am arguing that the BP brand both mediates and manages the
incompatibilities between an expressed concern for the environment and global
climate change on one hand, and the continuing development of energy, or oil, for
profit on the other. Within the BP corporate literature, such as annual reports and
the company website, a key aspect of the management of this incompatibility is the
discourse of sustainability. The opening page of the global website poses the
question “What does sustainability mean for a global company like ours and why is
it integral to our vision of the future?” This is accompanied by the image of a wind
turbine (BP Global c). A click on the question takes you to the ‘Environment and
society’ section, a further click on ‘find out what responsibility means to BP’ tells
Being a responsible business means taking steps to improve the things we can control
and contributing to wider issues that we can only influence, such as climate change
and social and economic development” (BP Global c).
Sustainability, signified by the wind turbine, translates into responsibility, in the
context of being a business that may contribute to wider development issues. Thus,
whilst sustainability may at first appear to be conceived in terms of the
environment, in reality sustainability is about business and maintaining profit
margins in the context of economic growth.
The apparent convergence of, and slippage between, environmental and
economic sustainability, is a characteristic of the discourse of sustainable
development. The concept of sustainable development came to prominence
following the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987, from the World
Conference on Environment and Development (Dryzek 1997; Elliot 1996). The
report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of
the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their
own needs” (WCED quoted in Elliot 2006, 7). With many definitions having since
emerged, the vision of sustainable development was one where “economic growth,
environmental conservation [and] social justice” (Dryzek 1997, 132) were
presented as achievable in the present and the future. The discourse presents an
interrelationship between economic, social and environmental development, but
one which is open to competing definitions and different priorities for those
involved. As Jennifer Elliot points out, “the attractiveness (and the ‘dangers’) of
the concept of sustainable development may lie precisely in the varied ways in
which it can be interpreted and used to support a whole range of interests or
causes” (2006, 10). Similarly, John Dryzek says “if sustainable development is
BP BRANDING AND CLIMATE CHANGE
indeed emerging as a dominant discourse, astute actors recognise that the terms of
this discourse should be cast in terms favourable to them” (1997, 124).
For BP, sustainable development is primarily economic. As Peter Sutherland,
Chairman of BP, stated in the 2001 annual report: “Our fundamental objective is to
protect and enhance shareholder value, in both the short and long term” (BP 2002,
10). In the same report, John Browne, the Group Chief executive, had a slightly
different vision of development.
We have to understand what the world expects from large companies and respond
accordingly. In our sector those expectations are focused upon the environment.
Can we demonstrate that our business is not caught in a desperate trade-off
between the desire for economic growth and improved living standards and the
imperative to protect our natural environment? We believe that we can transcend
that trade-off (BP 2002, 12).
Browne’s apparently equal commitment to environmental responsibility and
economic growth is a key characteristic of the ideals of sustainable development,
yet one which remains in the realms of discourse—as demonstrated by my analysis
of BP’s advertising. In the 2006 annual report, Browne is much more explicit about
the economic goal which underpins BP’s development activities.
We start from the view that the purpose of business is to satisfy human needs and,
in doing so, to generate profits for investors. For BP, that means providing energy
to fuel human progress and economic growth. It also means satisfying the need for
a sustainable environment (BP 2006, 4).
Human needs and economic growth are the orders of priority in a discourse of
teleological progress which casts the environment as secondary. By figuring
energy as a human need, BP is able to legitimise its continuing exploration for oil
as a means of satisfying this need. In doing so, any critique of our increasing
energy consumption is erased. At the same time, any real commitment to
addressing the urgent reality of climate change—in which some of the central
ideological assumptions of capitalist modernity, such as economic growth, might
be questioned—is evaded.
Branding global climate change
When I use a brand, the network of meaningful social and aesthetic relations
that has been established around it enables me to perform a certain
personality or to relate to a certain group of people. (Arvidsson 2006, 126)
The BP brand, which includes the logo, advertising, corporate literature and
website, are forms of capital which have become socialised. The values
communicated by the brand are culturally meaningful and work in a dialectical
relationship (Holt 2002) with the consumer, on whom the success of the company
is dependent. Drawing upon existing environmental discourses, BP positions itself
as an environmentally aware brand, yet it is the consumer’s engagement with the
brand, and more importantly their consumption of the brand values, products and
services, through which success is determined. Even prior to the Gulf of Mexico
oil spill in 2010, there was mounting critique of BP, particularly with regards to its
safety record following the deaths of 15 workers at a Texas refinery in 2005, and
oil spills in Alaska (Harrison & Bunscombe 2006; Ethical Corporation 2007a).
Furthermore, in 2007 BP fell off the top Global 100 sustainability rankings (Ethical
Corporation 2007b). It is difficult, however, to gauge yet whether or not these
events will have a serious impact upon the company’s standing in the public eye.
For the moment we must continue to question what kinds of messages about
climate change BP is communicating, what effect these may have upon public
perceptions, and what actions are being authorised.
When understood in the context of the history of the denial of climate change
by oil companies, BP’s acknowledgement of the existence phenomenon in its
advertising is a form of action, if only through the manipulation of existing
discursive opportunities. The explicit recognition of climate change would appear
to mark BP out as doing something about the issue. Yet an examination of the
climate-change mitigation activities promoted in the advertisements and in the
annual reports reveals that very little is actually being done. As already stated, the
promotion of gas as a means of tackling climate change draws attention away from
BP’s minimal commitment to renewable energy sources crucial to combating
climate change in the long term. Although a global environmental issue, BP
localises its climate change messages according to national context. For the UK
audience, the financial aspirations of individual workers are invoked through
recourse to reflexive identity. For the US audience, a sense of national identity is
expressed through reference to consumption and the home. For a German public,
an existing national concern for the environment means that participation in a
global community is promoted. Despite the differences across the national
campaigns, all the advertisements target the public as consumers. The only real
action offered by BP to the public to help combat climate change is through the
purchase of BP Ultimate fuel, and a benign trust that BP is working to mitigate
climate change further.
BP’s branding processes highlight the problems inherent to green branding,
and the branding of climate change more specifically. Many companies are now
explicitly using climate change as a means of marketing their products and
services. The global petrochemical company, Shell, has been advertising its
renewable energy investments as part of an attempt to green its image. Yet, the
claim that its Canadian oils sands project was an example of sustainable energy
was successfully revoked by the UK Advertising Standards Authority following a
complaint by the conservation group WWF (Advertising Standards Authority, UK
2008). Devon County Council (UK) has been marketing Devon to the British
BP BRANDING AND CLIMATE CHANGE
public as a holiday destination which is “the perfect answer to global warming”
(Discover Devon 2007). Because branding has become a central aspect of
meaning-making within contemporary culture—“spun into the social fabric” as
Arvidsson puts it (Arvidsson 2006, 3)—it is not surprising that companies are
invoking concern for climate change within their marketing strategies. However,
the political outcome of this is problematic in two ways. Firstly, by declaring a
concern for the environment, and by establishing a dialectical relationship with
current consumer anxieties about the environment, companies encourage the
consumer to believe that buying into the brand is the action. In other words, in the
terms of the lifestyle project promoted by brands, to buy is to do is to be. Secondly,
the activity that branding promotes is primarily the consumption of goods and
experiences, where the latter is a form of commodity. The logic of branding then, it
could be argued, is antithetical to the needs of climate change mitigation, where a
reduction in consumption (of goods, energy, travel, etc,) is required in order to
tackle climate change (WorldWatch Institute 2010).
An important task for brand management is to ensure that the ongoing production
of a common social world on the part of consumers proceeds in ways that
reproduce a distinctive brand image, and that strengthens the brand equity—the
productive potential that the brand has in the minds of the consumers—which is
understood as the most important factor behind brand value. (Arvidsson 2006, 74)
Brands will no longer be able to hide their commercial motivations. (Holt 2002,
BP’s brand equity has been based upon an image of environmental leadership
and progressive thought. I have tried to show that, for BP, going “beyond
petroleum” does not mean embracing renewable forms of energy needed to prevent
catastrophic climate change. Instead, BP is committed to increasing oil production
and exploration, developing further markets in Russia, Angola, China and Egypt,
to accompany its existing resources in the North Sea and Alaska. In fact, BP’s
intentions have never been to invest in renewable energy. The company’s branding
and advertising activities, I would argue, constitute a way of creating a new
discourse of energy that draws upon existing discourses of the environment and
sustainability in order to deflect attention away from its dominant ethos, in the
context of a common social world increasingly aware of global climate change.
The fallacy of BP’s espousal of the common environmental good is revealed in the
words of John Browne, the former Group Chief Executive, 1998-2007: “We need
to reinvent the energy business; to go beyond petroleum. Not by abandoning oil
and gas—but by improving the ways in which is used and produced so that our
business is aligned with the long term needs of the world” (quoted in Wheeler
2003, 177). Douglas Holt argues that in the post-postmodern era, brands will
increasingly be made accountable for the reality behind the rhetoric: “Postmodern
branding is perceived as deceitful because the ideals woven into brands seem so
disconnected from, and often contrary to, the material actions of the companies that
own them” (2002, 88). Whilst the actions of BP are increasingly being exposed,
not least as a result of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, its deployment of
green marketing strategies has wider implications. By equating environmental
politics with branding tactics, environmentalism may become devalued as a mere
marketing strategy and lose the political support of the public. Addressing climate
change requires changes in practices, as well as beliefs and values. Analysing BP’s
branding strategies urges us to think about the broader consequences of equating
environmental (and climate change) politics with corporate capitalism, and the role
of green branding within this.
BP BRANDING AND CLIMATE CHANGE
1. ExxonMobil is the biggest non-state-owned oil company, with BP second. See
Christopher Helman, “The World’s Biggest Oil Companies”, Forbes.com, July 9, 2010.
oil.html (accessed July 13 2010).
2. This re-branding was criticised by Greenpeace and the Free Tibet campaign in 2001, in
relation to BP’s lack of an explicit strategy for phasing out fossil fuel production and sales,
as well as in its investment in PetroChina, the Chinese oil company attacked for its
involvement in Tibet and human rights abuses. See Barker 2001 and Buchan 2001.
3. A high-profile Stop Esso campaign was launched in 2001 by a coalition of environmental
NGOs including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and People and Planet, backed by many
celebrities. Its purpose was to expose ExxonMobil’s financial contribution to George Bush’s
election campaign, and the subsequent withdrawal of the US from the Kyoto Protocol
following Bush’s election.
4. The US TV adverts are very similar to the UK ones. The Global TV adverts draw upon
the UK and US versions. Because of similarities, I will analyse the UK TV adverts.
5. My own calculation based upon figures presented in the BP Annual Report and
Accounts (BP 2005, 12). Included in the 3% is a whole range of activities that come under
the heading “Gas, Power and Renewables”, listed as “the marketing and trading of natural
gas, natural gas liquids (NGLs), liquefied natural gas (LNG), LNG shipping and
regasification activities, and low-carbon power development, including solar and wholesale
marketing and trading” (BP Alternative Energy, BP 2005, 8).
6. The ideology of the Third Way brings together the seeming incompatibilities of left-wing
social democracy and right-wing economic neo-liberalism to produce an apparently
compatible discourse committed to social justice and the operations of the free market. BP’s
purported commitment to climate change mitigation, at the same time as increasing its
extraction and sale of crude oil (a major producer of CO2), is an example of a similar desire
to resolve or conceal structural and ideological contradictions. On the Third Way, see
7. My thanks to Irmi Karl for the translation from German to English in both adverts.
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