Big Oil is under fire. So oil companies use their money to influence public opinion and the political climate. They use advertising and marketing to do this, also aimed at young children. Shell’s Generation Discover children’s festival shows how the oil multinational uses advertising to protect its fossil fuels revenue model from climate policy.
Kids’ festival or lobbying?
A long tradition of marketing to children
Master manipulator Edelman
The arsonist fuelling the fire
The annual Generation Discover children’s festival is all about the wind and the sun, and, alright, there’s a bit about natural gas, too. Children aged 6 and older learn how they can generate energy by dancing. The iconic Ferris wheel runs on green electricity. There is a food truck serving organic pancake treats and the milk for cappuccino is frothed with solar energy.
Kids’ festival or lobbying?
But this is not a Greenpeace event – it’s a festival sponsored by one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers. Shell – whose production is 98% fossil fuels, pumps 2.7 million barrels of oil out of the ground every day and spends about US$55mn annually on marketing – spares no expense for its yearly Generation Discover festival in the heart of The Hague. Why does Shell spend so much money on young children who cannot yet even fill up cars with petrol? The answer comes – rather surprisingly – from Shell itself. A proud message was posted on LinkedIn: Shell had won an important European award. But this was not a communications prize, or a prize for the best festival to interest children in technology. No, this was the European Excellence Award for Public Affairs. An award for lobbying, in other words.
Critics say Generation Discover is marketing aimed at children and greenwashing to distract attention from Shell’s role in exacerbating the climate problem. But just how does this festival of advertising function as lobbying? To answer that question, let’s first look at a definition of “public affairs”: “The strategic process of responding to political decision-making and to changes in society and public opinion that affect one’s own organisation’s performance.”
It is important to realise what is at stake for Shell. The oil multinational is heavily in debt. With oil prices low and climate change impacting on the industry, much of the company’s value lies in its brand. Advertising and media campaigns keep the Shell brand strong, with messages and images that influence millions of minds, including those of politicians, journalists, civil servants and ministers. So is Generation Discover really just for young children? The five-day festival in the political centre of the Netherlands receives several months of attention each year all over the country. The festival also includes a competition for schools: the Bright Ideas Challenge. And there is a mini-version of the festival, the Bright Ideas Hub, which travels around the country for six months. The festival’s images are distributed through free media publicity and large advertisements in national and local newspapers, on TV networks, via outdoor advertising, influencers, followers and social media. The festival is opened each year by a leading executive or public official. Politicians, journalists, scientists, mayors and ministers are invited and give speeches. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is also a welcome guest at Shell’s children’s marketing festival.
With a major media campaign such as Generation Discover, Shell is able to kill several birds with one stone. The oil multinational appeals to young people who in the future may hold influential positions, as well as to the people who are already in key positions. Advertising campaigns by fossil fuel companies are a well-known strategy used to influence the climate debate and to delay climate policy. Professor Robert Brulle (Drexel University, USA) researched 30 years of marketing by the fossil fuel industry in the United States and discovered patterns in the timing of their campaigns: oil multinationals put more money into large-scale public campaigns in response to bad press, or when politicians had to make important decisions. According to Brulle, every campaign by the fossil industry is designed to convey “[…]telling you how good they are, how they’re so responsible and good corporate citizens, and that whatever problem it is that you’re talking about, they’re right on top of it and handling it. And the hidden messages. So therefore, there’s no need to regulate us at all.” That last sentence is the crux of the matter. As long as Shell can ensure that government leaders, policymakers and politicians go along with Shell’s green story, no restrictive supply-side measures for the fossil industry will be imposed on Shell by the government.1 This will allow their fossil fuel business model to remain unaffected.
Most companies do not have to pretend to be something they are not. But Shell’s business model – oil and gas – is inextricably linked to harm: climate loss, ecocide, corruption, tax avoidance and damage to communities, people’s homes, their water and their human rights. This is causing Shell’s reputation to become increasingly tarnished. More and more large investors are withdrawing their money from the fossil fuel industry, employees are leaving because Shell does not live up to its sustainable credentials, students no longer want to work for Shell and advertising agencies are blacklisting Shell. Shell’s privileged (tax) position with the government is also gradually crumbling. “We have to be honest,” admits CEO Ben van Beurden, “Trust in Shell has faded over the past decade.”
Public approval is invaluable to Shell. There’s a good reason why a “strong social license to operate” is one of Shell’s top three strategic ambitions.2 Shell can only continue to exist if the public, politicians, pension funds and its employees believe that Shell is a company making a positive contribution to society, a company working towards the energy transition. The facts don’t support that, so instead Shell invests a good deal of money in advertising, marketing and branding to shore up its public image. Brulle calls this image advertising. Generation Discover provides a good example. The festival supports Shell’s right to exist. It misleads politicians and public officials into believing that Shell is not only a partner in the fight against climate change, but is even leading the way. After all, what was the government doing on climate education in 2016? The idea that Shell is a partner is the key to maintaining access to loans, permits, shareholders, staff and a strong lobbying position with the government.
The Generation Discover festival was a major image campaign, in which Shell presented itself as a reliable partner caring deeply about the earth and the future. And within the festival, Shell also engaged in what Brulle calls issue advertising.3 Using issue ads, the fossil fuel industry allows society and politicians to develop a preference for “climate solutions” that maintain the fossil fuel business model. An example of issue marketing are campaigns promoting natural gas as a “clean transition fuel”. At Generation Discover, too, Shell used glossy greenwashing to present natural gas as clean. In 2018, the festival featured a large advertisement in which Shell promoted its fossil fuel Gas-to-Liquid (GTL) as a climate solution. The Dutch Advertising Code Committee (RCC) made Shell back down from this misleading claim. But a judgment from the RCC is always retroactive, so Shell had already been able to spread the false claim that GTL is clean and with it Shell is contributing to solving climate change. Shell also used the festival to promote technologies such as hydrogen and heating from the petrochemical industry. Not coincidentally, these “solutions” allow Shell to continue to substantially increase oil and gas production for the time being.
Oil companies and their trade associations such as the American Petroleum Institute have been campaigning for more than two decades to market natural gas as clean and as part of the solution for climate change. And this is working. Despite the fact that the damage caused by natural gas is abundantly clear, both for people living in the vicinity of gas production and for the climate, many politicians and journalists still see gas as a “solution”, even in 2021.
Public campaigns such as Generation Discover present Shell to millions of people as a company that is aware of the climate problem – and that knows what the solution is. This puts people at ease falsely, providing reassurance that Shell is “on top of the situation”, that Shell is playing its part in the energy transition. Using this myth, Shell presents itself as a “partner” of government in achieving the climate targets. And as a “partner” Shell can – unobtrusively – slow down climate policy and manipulate it in its favour. As a “partner”, Shell can prevent governments from taking measures that would hurt Shell, such as restrictions, bans and production caps. As a “partner with expertise”, as a “leader in the energy transition”, Shell can put forward “solutions” that allow oil and gas production to continue growing unabated.
It is therefore vital that Shell is seen as a “reliable partner”. This is the reason why every interview and item about Generation Discover starts with Shell employees telling us that they are working with many other parties to organise the festival together. These partners are mainly well-known organisations evoking respect and a feeling of national pride and security in most of the Netherlands, such as the police, the military, the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum Boerhaave. An example of the direct effect this “co-branding” has on government policy was demonstrated by events that occurred in the city council of The Hague. In the debate over a three-year education grant to be awarded by the municipality to Shell for Generation Discover, former alderwoman Ingrid van Engelshoven (now Minister of Education) defended the subsidy by pointing out the festival’s partners. “It’s not solely Shell’s festival”, she stated, “Generation Discover is a collaboration with NEMO, Museon and the Boerhaave Museum. They wouldn’t take their co-cooperation lightly. That was an important consideration for me in granting the subsidy. Trusted partners have participated in the festival.” The alderman used the reliable image of Shell’s partners to silence Shell’s critics and to justify the government’s own relationship with Shell. The implicit message is: if they are willing to work with Shell, it must not be as bad as its critics claim. This way Shell remains a socially accepted company that retains the public’s trust.
A long tradition of marketing to children
Generation Discover has so far had four editions: three in The Hague and the last one in Rotterdam – due to mounting community pressure from The Hague. Shell’s multi-year PR campaign centred around Generation Discover was designed to raise awareness for the “Science and Technology” (W&T) curriculum that would become compulsory in Dutch primary schools in 2020. Shell developed “Engineering” teaching materials especially for W&T in collaboration with NEMO children’s technology museum (co-branding).
Shell’s marketing to children fits into a long tradition of marketing in schools by Shell and other oil multinationals. In a leaked memo, Shell calls young people “more open-minded” towards Shell than older generations. In the words of the multinational, today’s youth will soon be the politicians, journalists and policymakers who will decide the debate. Shell intends to plant a seed in their minds through campaigns like Generation Discover, Make The Future, EcoMarathon and The Great Travel Hack.
In recent decades, the emphasis in Shell’s teaching materials has been on sustainability. As climate change has not yet become a compulsory subject for schools in 2021, chances are that Shell or another fossil fuel company will be the first to inform children about climate change, sustainability and the energy transition. Theirs will be the first message to become embedded in children’s brains. Shell tells the young festivalgoers that they are the generation that will solve the world’s great problems – which Shell is now causing. But Shell also communicates that these problems are not yet urgent, enabling the company to continue producing oil and gas. A puzzle about the energy mix in 2050, the year in which the world must reach zero emissions according to “Paris”, which Shell gives children to put together shows this clearly. The solution to Shell’s puzzle is that the world will still be running on coal, oil and gas for 70 per cent in 2050. When questioned about this, a Shell employee explained that Shell wanted to give children a realistic picture of the future. But it is Shell’s unrelentless marketing aimed at children and young people that allows the oil company to determine what their future will look like.
Teaching materials provided by the fossil fuel industry have a great impact on the world view of children, teachers and parents, concluded scientists4 who researched teaching materials in a Canadian province where much oil is extracted from tar sands. The fossil fuel industry there promotes a neo-liberal worldview through education, a world where fossil fuels are indispensable and children see themselves as consumers who can solve the world’s problems through (purchasing) behaviour and donations to nature conservation organisations. But the teaching materials provided by the ever-growing fossil fuel industry never mention the damage it does.
The same is true of Shell’s teaching materials. In the follow-up to Generation Discover, for example, Shell employees visit many schools to give the children a gift (a car that runs on salt water) and to teach them about the importance of separating plastic and food waste. Shell is also participating in discussions on the new technical curriculum for primary and secondary schools, and organising teacher training sessions on oil and gas. Furthermore, Shell’s textbooks promote CO2 storage, CO2 trading and natural gas, the same subjects for which the oil concern lobbies the government in The Hague, in Brussels and at UN climate conferences. Shell gives five and six-year-old children paper windmills to cut out with the Shell logo. The oil multinational sends its employees to visit school classes, telling glowing stories of what it means to work for Shell (luxury!). In children’s games about energy, Shell places natural gas alongside solar energy and wind energy. By juxtaposing gas beside sustainable forms of energy, Shell gives it the appearance of being a clean energy form too.
Generation Discover, as well as Shell’s other youth campaigns EcoMarathon and The Great Travel Hack, are imbued with values that many people hold dear, such as optimism, innovation, cooperation, individual responsibility and concern for the future. Barbara Miller and Julie Lellis researched effective marketing by the fossil industry.5 They showed that the reason that fossil fuel campaigns are so successful and held to be credible by many people is precisely because they appeal to values that are important to society. Through marketing, Shell has anchored itself in our minds as a company that is so intertwined with our society that we can no longer imagine society without it. Just as Brulle, they observed that large-scale PR campaigns by the fossil fuel industry serve to obstruct environmental legislation and government regulation. Shell builds broad support for the government policy it wants via its PR campaigns. According to Miller and Lellis, another factor is that when people identify with the values in a marketing campaign, they are less likely to criticise the content of the advertisement.6 Research by Erasmus University7 has also shown that if advertising consists of positive, attractive images, people subconsciously develop positive feelings about the brand. These feelings are often so strong that people are scarcely able to view the brand objectively, even when they gain insight into how they are being influenced or are given information that contradicts the information in the advertisement. An understanding of this is relevant for anyone trying to show what fossil fuel advertising is doing by pointing out the real business model of the fossil industry.
Being much more direct than Shell’s marketing is, CEO Ben van Beurden clearly expresses Shell’s support for fossil fuels. “I pump up as much as I can,” he stated in a Dutch TV news show, just two months after the Paris Agreement was signed. In 2018, Van Beurden reassured investors that Shell’s sustainable investments are an insignificant part of its total investments, and that Shell’s future will continue to be in oil and gas, natural gas being particularly important to Shell. In saying this, Van Beurden debunks the messages of his own marketing department. But no matter how crystal clear Ben van Beurden is about Shell’s fossil fuel core and its future plans, many people still believe that the company is working hard to turn the tide.
Shell’s optimistic marketing message apparently carries more weight than the words of its own CEO. And that is vitally important to the oil multinational. In 2016 – after the Paris Agreement came into effect – Shell bought British Gas for €64 billion. This strengthened Shell’s position as global market leader in LNG and natural gas at a time when criticism of Shell and gas was growing. But it was an expensive gamble. The future of Shell depends on whether Shell can sell itself and gas as “sustainable” and “in line with Paris”. And Shell uses advertising to do this, argued lawyer Roger Cox in his opening speech in the lawsuit Milieudefensie [Friends of the Earth Netherlands] has brought to force Shell to change course. Cox named Shell’s targeted lobbying practices and PR campaigns as major tools to protect the “fossil fuel business model from the risks of stricter and accelerated climate policies”. According to Cox, this works on the principle that a company that is familiar to the public cannot be their enemy. “Familiarity and reputation build trust and loyalty, among regulators, investors, employees, consumers and other stakeholders of the company. That is apparently how the human psyche works.” Cox then referred to Shell’s PR agencies which skilfully capitalise on this and bring children into contact with the Shell name and logo from an early age. Cox calls this “imprinting”. Once an idea has taken root, it is difficult to replace it with another. “You could find it fascinating,” said Roger Cox, “if it weren’t so shocking that this is the way the richest and most powerful corporations in the world purposefully seek to influence, and succeed in influencing, the collective unconscious.”
Master manipulator Edelman
Influence often takes place right under your nose – so people don’t realise they’re being influenced. The fact that a company has known about the climate problem for more than 30 years and still continues to exacerbate it is unimaginable for most people. For that reason alone, we tend to believe Shell when its advertisements tell us that it is doing its best. To better understand the “Shell method” it is interesting to look at the PR agency Edelman, which has been doing business with Shell since before 2003. Shell’s Generation Discover, EcoMarathon and MakeTheFuture campaigns were all created by Edelman. This international PR agency is known for using ingenious tactics to keep restrictive legislation at bay, allowing destructive multinationals to stay afloat for as long as possible despite heavy opposition. Edelman advised first the tobacco industry and later the fossil fuel industry to sow doubt about the scientific evidence of damage from their products. And in the year 2021, Edelman is still sowing its seeds of doubt. But now, instead of denying climate change, they are advising fossil fuel multinationals to claim to be the exact opposite of what they are: to present themselves as leaders in the energy transition.
Edelman itself also made such a 180-degree turn. At the end of the last century, the PR agency was specialised in spreading doubt about the science, but in 2000 it linked its name to the concept of “trust” with an annual Trust Barometer, used to measure how trust in government, companies and the media develops worldwide. But in effect Edelman measures the effectiveness of multinationals’ marketing campaigns. The barometer shows that trust in companies and CEOs is growing and trust in the government is declining. This is precisely where the fossil fuel industry can find opportunities, Edelman points out: “It creates an opportunity for energy companies – so often closely associated with government-run industries – to take the lead in terms of engagement and show themselves as drivers of prosperity, pioneers of innovation and creators of jobs.” Shell does exactly that. It uses PR campaigns to present itself as a driver of progress, an innovative pioneer in the fight against climate change, and as a major employer. Along with these campaigns, Shell promises the government that “we will help you achieve goals such as more technical education, more jobs and help in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” The government can hardly say no to an influential company that promises to help the government achieve its goals.
The arsonist fuelling the fire
Shell is not what it pretends to be. In its PR campaigns, the company plays the hero who comes to the rescue. But Shell is actually the arsonist throwing more and more fuel on the fire. Through its advertising campaigns, Shell blinds us to the destruction that is inextricably linked to its business model. Shell plants its ideas in our minds through its advertising, marketing and PR: that it is a green company with the Netherlands’ best interests and our future at heart, that gas is clean and a solution to the climate problem, that Shell is a leader in the energy transition, that there is enough time to solve the climate problem later, and that the responsibility for the climate crisis lies with the consumer. As long as Shell can make us believe these fairy tales, the multinational can retain its social acceptance, now and in the future, and can keep its place at the government table. There the company can oppose binding regulations, delay climate policy and steer that policy in the direction that will make Shell the most money: natural gas. One thing is certain – Shell and other oil multinationals would not be spending so much money on marketing if it was not effective.
- Green, F. and Denniss, R. (2018). Cutting with both arms of the scissors: the economic and political case for restrictive supply-side climate policies. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-018-2162-x on February 19, 2021.
- Outen, G. (2018, 31 January). Decision-making in the face of a radically uncertain future. Retrieved from https://www.enecho.meti.go.jp/en/committee/studygroup/ene_situation/pdf/005_005.pdf on February 19, 2021.
- Brulle, R.J. et al (2020). Corporate promotion and climate change: an analysis of key variables affecting advertising spending by major oil corporations, 1986-2015. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-019-02582-8 on February 19, 2021.
- Eaton, E.M. & Day, N.A. (2018, 21 December). Petro-pedagogy: fossil fuel interests and the obstruction of climate justice in public education. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13504622.2019.1650164 on February 19, 2021.
- Miller, B. M., & Lellis, J. (2016). Audience response to values-based marketplace advocacy by the fossil fuel industries. Environmental Communication, 10(2), 249-268. https://doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2014.993414.
- Hütter, M. & Sweldens, S. (2018, 2 February). Dissociating Controllable and Uncontrollable Effects of Affective Stimuli on Attitudes and Consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 45(2), 320-349 Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jcr/article-abstract/45/2/320/4793114 on February 19, 2021.