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FREE SPEECH IS for sale these days, and the oil companies are buying. Accusations of profiteering and veiled threats of federal crackdowns have driven the energy conglomerates to mount a massive and unprecedented media blitz aimed at changing their public image. Last year the oil industry spent over $100 million on advertising, much of it unabashedly political. Mobil alone spends about $5 million a year, and from 1973 to mid-1976 not a penny went to product advertisements. Instead, the entire budget went to buying huge amounts of newspaper, magazine and television ads devoted to the now-familiar oil company theme--that somehow the government and those no-good liberals were out to get the struggling, public-minded energy entrepreneurs.
Clever though the oil companies may be, their new image is laughable, their arguments are phony, and their methods are devious. Worst of all, no means of retaliation exists. There are no corporations around willing or able to spend a tenth of a billion dollars answering the oil companies' assertions or stating the other side of the case. Moreover, this political media saturation comes at the critical moment when the country is about to formulate its long-range policies about energy.
The majority of the ads are offensive not because they tell lies but because the image they portray is ludicrous. Take, for instance, the television spot run by Texaco this summer. The announcer asks various customers, "How much profit do you think we make on a gallon of gas?" They respond with assurance, "Gee, at least thirty cents or more," or "I don't know, but a lot." The announcer then tells viewers sternly but calmly that many people are under this misconception but that in reality, Texaco only makes about one-and-a-half cents profit per gallon of gas. The implication is clearly that oil companies do not make a lot of money after all.
Of course, the announcer does not perform the simple arithmetic of multiplying that rate by the enormous quantities of gas the company sells each year. Were he to do this, he would discover that poor Texaco does alright for itself. It is number four on a Fortune 500 list that boasts eight oil companies in the top 15 American corporations. While the public may not have the pergallon rate precisely right, they are not far off by thinking the oil companies are more than solvent.
UNFORTUNATELY, NOT ALL of the ads are merely aggravating and misleading. A more serious problem with the ad campaign is that companies' positions have a sinister way of changing from ad to ad. Since the ads are run at different times and few people get a chance to read every one, some oil companies have no qualms about arguing one side of an issue one week and the opposite side another week, allowing them the wonderful advantage of always being able to serve up what they think the public wants to hear.
For instance, early this year Mobil ran an ad entitled "Infamous Energy Mysteries: Case No. 3." The ad decried the situation in Gilette, Wyo., where Mobil owned a coal field but was at that time unable to mine it because of delays caused by environmental "over-regulation" and "red tape." The extent of these bothersome requirements became clear only later in the ad: the government required Mobil to assess the environmental impact of the proposed surface mining and required it to devise a plan to reclaim any areas that suffered adversely. The ad demurred, "We want to protect the environment of Gilette, Wyoming and anywhere else we operate. But environmental regulations shouldn't be so severe as to thoroughly frustrate new energy development."
Clearly, the regulations did not "thoroughly frustrate" energy development but merely assured that such development proceeded in accord with the need for protecting lands from the ravages of surface mining. What's more, Mobil's claim to environmental altruism is dubious. The regulations is question were established in the first place only because companies like Mobil had ignored environmental concerns and left strip-mined areas looking like lunar wastelands. In any case, the position itself was clear: "At a time when the public is being asked to make sacrifices to help allay America's energy crisis, shouldn't the government trim some of its red tape?" The undeniable implication was that environmental concerns were just not very important during an energy crisis.
When Carter's energy plan was announced last spring, though, Mobil's arguments took a curious turn. It seemed that Carter wanted to expand the use of coal in industries that had previously used oil, and Mobil got a little bit frightened. While coal was a pleasant sideline for the energy conglomerate, oil was its mainstay; so suddenly and mysteriously Mobil acquired an environmental conscience. In an ad entitled "Musings of an oil person," Mobil questioned the desirability of a switch to coal on the grounds that it raised serious environmental questions, including the problems of strip mining in the West. So Mobil took both sides of the environmental controversy depending on what best suited, not the energy needs of America, but the profit margin of Mobil. As long as these political statements were made in the form of ads, though, Mobil was never held publicly accountable for them and could always give the impression of being public-minded and noble.
A final problem with the media blitz is not one of content but one of methods. Again, Mobil seems to be the chief villain. This summer it launched a new program whereby prominent cartoonists were hired to draw cartoons subtly embued with the Mobil message. An example is one by Roy Doty of a man standing in his back yard, axing to bits a rubber hose which was in the process of supplying water for his inflatable swimming pool. Another man turns to a puzzled neighbor and says, "He's explaining how breaking up the oil companies would work." Another cartoon by Robert Weper has a store clerk explaining a new game to a customer: "It's a real challenge. You have to get the oil out of the ground and to market through this maze of federal restrictions, state regulations and local restrictions." Mobil then sends these cartoons to about 5,000 local newspaper throughout the country. The papers are invited to publish the cartoons free of charge.
What is disturbing about this practice is that the cartoons themselves bear no mention that they are part of a Mobil public relations campaign, and most of the papers that run the cartoons make no effort to volunteer that information. When the issue was advertisement by anti-Mobil groups, Herbert Schmertz, Mobil's vice-president for public affairs, wrote: "The public has a right to know who is behind any advocacy effort, and for whom the advocate is speaking. That applies to material from a corporation, or from a group that labels itself as public interest." How quickly they forget. Mobil claims it has been unjustly labelled as a bad-guy by the liberal press. But certainly in their cartoon campaign, they doth protest too much.
The oil companies, then, are waging a subtle and clever propaganda campaign. With pressing decisions to be made regarding national energy policy. Americans can little afford to be duped and mesmerized by Madison Avenue con men. Trusting your car to the man who wears the star is one thing; trusting an oil company with a multi-million dollar public relations budget is quite another.
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