Updated: Dec 9, 2021
Kick-Gas! "Petroleum advertising has likewise spilled abundantly across US television airwaves, slickly brainwashing viewers in the process." says Alfred Robert Hogan, a longtime science journalist and media historian.
Get the Oil Ads Out of Television News—and Off TV Period
By Alfred Robert Hogan
Oil spills have despoiled and polluted our planet. They have killed and injured birds, fish, and other wildlife. But this has happened not only in places such as the Santa Barbara coastline of California in 1969, the Prince William Sound of Alaska in 1989, and the Gulf of Mexico shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Texas, in 2010. Those disasters were brought to us by Amoco, Exxon, and British Petroleum, respectively. Yet, decade after decade, petroleum advertising has likewise spilled abundantly across US television airwaves, slickly brainwashing viewers in the process.
Examples abound, even from the earliest era of US television. Exxon-precursor ESSO sponsored NBC’s experimental television newscast in New York City from March to May 1940. Late in World War II, NBC’s ESSO-sponsored television series “The War As It Happens,” also aired in New York City, from February 1944 till August 1945—with stations in Philadelphia and Schenectady NY added as of April 1944, accessing potentially as many as 5000 or so television sets in those cities. And "The ESSO Newsreel" aired twice weekly on NBC-TV’s tiny but growing network from mid-1946 till February 1948. Soon, millions viewed the 1948-1953 “Texaco Star Theater,” which made Milton Berle into the uber-popular Mr. Tuesday Night. That weekly series also featured “the men of Texaco,” who sang in barbershop-quartet-like unison that they worked “from Maine to Mexico,” extolling Sky Chief and Fire Chief gasolines. From December 1960 into the early 1970s, Gulf Oil contracted with NBC News to sole-sponsor special events television coverage of space missions, political conventions, and other important news—with the ad narrator typically proclaiming, “how vital oil is to your way of life.” From 1971 to 2004, Mobil and its successor Exxon-Mobil served as the sole commercial underwriter of the long-running PBS drama series “Masterpiece Theatre.” In the mid-1970s, the “Shell Answer Man” campaign often underwrote CBS-TV’s nightly “Bicentennial Minutes.” (Those examples exclude the ubiquitous television ads for gas-powered cars, pickup trucks, and sports-utility vehicles, not to mention Jeeps and Humvees, and petroleum jet-fueled air travel.)
In the current 21st century, ads directly from oil corporations such as Chevron, British Petroleum/BP, and ExxonMobil, from trade associations such as the American Petroleum Institute, or from truth-twisting, pre-fabbed “AstroTurf” groups such as “Vote 4 Energy” flood the commercial breaks of Sunday-morning interview programs such as “Face The Nation,” “Meet the Press,” and “This Week”; “debates” among US presidential candidates at which few or no questions about the climate emergency ever get asked; broadcast evening newscasts; cable news telecasts; and local television in the DC market, especially aiming to sway leading politician and “opinion makers.”
“Energy Citizens,” yet another API AstroTurf offshoot, in recent weeks has been flooding the airwaves of the “CBS Evening News” and cable news channels with misleading pro-fossil fuels advertising. The ad features a female narrator and a vanishing school bus, falsely implying that only proceeds from oil and gas exploitation can fund public education. CNN’s much-ballyhooed “Presidential Town Hall With Joe Biden” from Milwaukee featured zero questions or remarks about the climate crisis, from either moderator Anderson Cooper or any of the pre-screened audience questioners, during its 70 minutes. By coincidence--or maybe not--fossil fuel ads air often on CNN. One recent , with a female narrator, presents a false binary choice: depend on overseas oil or exploit it domestically. (Getting such insidious ads banned from cable or satellite channels not using the public airwaves will be more challenging.)
In early January 2020, Swedish ace teen eco champion Greta Thunberg tweeted that she knew of only one major paper refusing to take fossil fuel ads, Dagens ETC in Stockholm. That left-leaning paper, which debuted in 2014, had banned such all such related ads in late September 2019. “Who will be the next one? Who will be the first major international newspaper to lead on this?” Greta asked in her tweet. Three weeks later, the London-based Guardian accepted the challenge, and banned such ads. However, that also left-leaning paper, which offers its copy free via its Web site in addition to paid print subscriptions, stopped short of banning lucrative ads for cars, air travel, and the like, because of the potentially devastating economic effect on its always-precarious budget. Apparently, no other newspapers have yet followed suit. (Dagens ETC. experienced a 20-percent drop in ad revenue after the ban, but later made that up with new subscribers and new advertisers.)
Of course, an across-the-board widespread ban on all newspaper and magazine fossil fuel ads would be most welcome. Unfortunately, there has not yet been a groundswell to follow those two pioneers. Yet, we must think and aim even more broadly: the influential media of television and radio must also ban such ads, on news programming, and ideally on any programming. The US federal government can more directly regulate what is seen and heard on the publicly owned airwaves. After all, cigarette ads were finally banned from US television and radio the day after New Year’s 1971, partly thanks to the tireless anti-tobacco public-interest lawyer John F. Banzhaf, who had founded the DC-based nonprofit Action on Smoking and Health in 1967, aided by help from consumer and environmental lawyer Ralph Nader and others.
From 2008 to 2017, fossil fuel-related groups paid PR and advertising firms at least $1.4 billion, as documented by the Climate Investigation Center. Here are just a few items that slick oil advertising never reveals. Half of all damaging CO2 released into Earth’s atmosphere by human activities, since the 1750 start of the Industrial Age, was released since 1988. That was the year James E. Hansen, who long headed NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, starkly warned of the growing dangers such trends pose, in testimony to the US Congress. But he was essentially ignored. Indeed, 10 U.S. presidents in a row, from LBJ, who received—and ignored—a federal advisory panel’s report warning about global warming back in November 1965, through Donald J. Trump, with his unabashed hostility to all environmental matters, did less than nothing to deal with what has become the climate emergency. Now, US President Joe Biden essentially follows suit—for instance, fast-okaying 2100 new oil and gas drilling permits in his initial six months in office. Likewise, U.S. Congresses remain addicted to fossil fuels—as do their counterparts in myriad other lands. And just since the December 2015 Paris Climate Accord ceremony, world banks have lavished more than $2.7 trillion into further fossil fuel company investments. The U.S. government alone annually expends some $81 billion on militarily “protecting” oil fields, pipelines, supertankers, and the like The pending Biden-backed, much-curtailed US infrastructure bill gushes with an estimated $25 billion in new added fossil fuel subsidies. Worldwide, fossil fuels subsidies totaled some $5.2 trillion in 2017.
It is long overdue for broadcast and cable television networks to take the modest belated step of banning fossil fuel ads, which distort reality worse than do amusement park funhouse mirrors. Or the U.S. federal government should promptly use its regulatory powers to make them stop. And the feds must indeed end the planetary plague of the fossil fuels industry in this way, and more. Governments in other countries must do likewise.
Alfred Robert Hogan, a longtime science journalist and media historian based in Maryland, is working on an environmental book about Greta Thunberg and climate emergency science and striving toward his PhD. He may be emailed via firstname.lastname@example.org.