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Recasting Big Oil's Battered Image
Ads by Chevron and Others Aim to Send Positive Messages

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007; D01

A 2 1/2 -minute television commercial will debut this weekend, directed by Lance Acord, the cinematographer on "Lost in Translation," "Being " and "." It will feature music by the British composer Paul Leonard-Morgan, who was recently commissioned to write a piece for the . And it will have an earnest voice-over by acclaimed indie actor Campbell Scott.

All this theatrical firepower has been marshaled for a new "power of human energy" campaign by , a charter member of Big Oil (often seen as Big Bad Oil). In today's eco-conscious political environment, Chevron is trying to portray itself as a company with "people of vision" striving to meet today's energy needs while searching for better, cleaner ways to meet them in the future.

It isn't the first time a big oil company has spent lavishly on image ads. British Petroleum rebranded itself as simply BP to stand for "beyond petroleum" and came up with a sunburst-style logo. In recent weeks, Exxon Mobil has been running print ads called "reinventing your wheels" about its efforts to improve fuel economy and "passport to progress" about the company's funding for U.S. math and science and overseas literacy programs.

But few have matched the new Chevron campaign for polish or emotion, or for its ambitious bid to recast itself as an environmentally responsible corporate citizen. Its creator said it was more of a "rallying cry" than an advertisement.

Shot in 22 locations in 13 countries over three months, the ads include real Chevron workers as well as actors. In an era when most TV ads are getting shorter, the Chevron ad that will air during "" this Sunday takes up an entire commercial break, which usually features five spots. The ad, along with three similar but shorter ones, will also appear on other television news shows and programs such as "Heroes," "" and college football. A company official said the campaign will cost in "the high tens of millions of dollars."

Whether it will work is another question.

"What these ads, like all oil company ads, do is accentuate the positive and don't mention the venality, the environmental impact and overarching greed that is at the bottom of their businesses," said Bob Garfield, a TV ad critic for .

Despite past ad campaigns aimed at dousing consumers' ire over high oil prices or dissuading lawmakers set on new taxes or regulations, the oil industry remains more disliked than any other business in the United States other than the tobacco industry. A poll of 1,500 adults conducted by the in August found that 45 percent had "very unfavorable" and another 21 percent "somewhat unfavorable" views of oil companies.

Chevron says its goal is to educate and inspire. , Chevron's manager of corporate brand and reputation, said the ads would be "targeted at a more influential audience. They won't appear on ',' for instance, or '.' " She said "Heroes" was chosen because it "speaks to the personal spirit and ability to overcome things."

The ad opens with what appears to be faintly illuminated rainfall against a black background. The words "tapped energy" morph into "untapped energy." Suddenly the viewer is gliding over glaciers, then a skyscraper lit up at night. "And outside the debate rages," Campbell Scott's narration begins. Images flicker: a drop of oil on rocks, an oil derrick, a smog-covered city, oil wells on fire.

"Oil, energy, the environment. It is the story of our time," Scott continues. Images of megaphones, protesters. "And it leaves no one untouched. Because make no mistake. This isn't just about oil companies. This is about you and me" -- images flash of a mother feeding a child, a man walking a dog in the rain, crowded escalators -- "and the undeniable truth that at this moment there are 6.5 billion people on this planet. And by year's end there'll be another 73 million. And every one of us will need energy to live." Pause. "Where will it come from?"

The ad's answer is that while Chevron produces solar and geothermal energy, oil is still needed.

"What we find a lot now is . . . people go to the idea of renewables. It is hope in a bottle," Clark said. "They feel it will all be okay. And of course this is not really true. Look at any statistics about the next 50 years, and oil is essential."

The company has also been pushing its educational message through an online game designed by the Economist magazine. It lets people make energy choices for a city -- dubbed "Energyville" -- of 3.9 million. In the past three weeks, 160,000 people have played it.

Clark said the need to educate the public was apparent in focus groups. "I've personally sat in groups where people say 'the answer is we have to drill for more ethanol,' " Clark said. "With such a lack of understanding, it is hard for people to make the right choices."

Ethanol is produced by fermenting corn or other feedstocks.

Clark also said that people in focus groups used words like "hopeless" or "helpless," and that the ads try to make people feel that solutions are within their grasp.

The long ad talks about using energy "more intelligently" and "more respectfully." It says "we live on this planet, too" and that Chevron is a company made of people, "not corporate titans," including pipeline welders and geologists, husbands and wives, liberals and conservatives, part-time poets and coaches.

"The theme is 'don't demonize us because, after all, we are just people like you,' " said Garfield, the Advertising Age critic. "And I say they are people like me except that their fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders is to . . . gouge me at the pumps."

The ads could be aiming to boost morale for Chevron employees, he said. "They thought they were working for Satan, and lo and behold, they're working for ."

Near the end, the commercial shows the runner Oscar Pistorius, whose legs were amputated below the knee; two mountain climbers celebrating on a peak; and a baby taking his first steps as the narration says "watch as we tap the greatest source of energy in the world -- ourselves."

Chevron used McGarryBowen, a five-year-old ad agency founded by ad-firm veterans. It has done ads for Crayola crayons, hotel rooms, and J.P. Morgan Chase credit and debit cards. For a ad, the agency dressed up soccer star as Prince Charming. In a ad, an open-mouthed boy stares at light bursting from a Verizon truck.

"You're always looking for a core idea, and the power of human energy was a huge idea for Chevron," said Gordon Bowen, a founding partner and creative director of McGarryBowen. "We felt strongly that there had to be a message that was not just factual but emotional, that was optimistic about what could be done by human beings."

He said he chose the cinematographer Acord because he wanted a documentary feel rather than a commercial one. He picked Scott because "he really did not sound like an advertising announcer." Leonard-Morgan could compose music with an "arc" that wouldn't get boring after two minutes.

"We didn't set out to do a two-minute spot," Bowen said, "but to see what message we wanted to convey and how best to convey it."

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