Wednesday, June 09, 2010

BP's Commercial: Shame on Media

June 9, 2010, 8:40 a.m.
[For BP disaster see, "Big Oil: Calling Shots, Corrupting Government," May 26, 2010; "Obama As Finger-Pointer-In-Chief," May 18, 2010; "Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess," May 10, 2010; "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.]

Media's Profit is Public's Loss: BP vs. Mobil Oil
(bought to you by*)

It has been said that we are no more conscious of the media through which we swim each day than fish must be of the waters through which they swim -- unless, perhaps, those waters are are part of the BP-polluted waters of the Gulf, and the fish notice that their family and friends are covered with oil and floating to the surface of the water.

Thus, no one, so far as I have seen, has picked up on what BP has been doing to pollute the media -- and how the media has sacrificed its values and capitulated to the company's public relations efforts (to the media's financial profit).

I'm talking about BP's $50 million public relations campaign, and specifically the commercial starring BP CEO Tony Hayward. And I'm responding to the media's willingness to not only plop that commercial right in the middle of news and public affairs programming -- but to do so without providing a critique of the commercial, or a public service announcement answer to it of any kind from those holding a contrary view.

If you watch television at all I can't believe you haven't seen it. But anyway, here it is:

I trust you picked up on the soothing tones, the seemingly sincere apology, the representation that "we will make this right," the assurance that it "never happens again," and the pictures of clean, white sand beaches and birds with not a drop of oil on a one of them.

Now don't get me wrong. I think BP has a right to make an effort to put its best foot forward in this public relations disaster. I don't buy the Supreme Court's assertion that corporations have all the constitutional rights of persons, that political contributions (money) are the constitutional equivalent of First Amendment-protected speech, and that Congress has no right to try to bring some balance back to the wildly disproportionate power of corporate treasuries thrown into the political arena. But I do think BP has a right to produce this commercial.

My problem is with the almost total absence of any critique of the commercial, the absence of public service announcements from environmental organizations with equivalent production (and psychologically manipulative) techniques, and television's placement of the BP commercial inside news and public affairs programs.

And to help make my point, I want to relate a story from another time, involving another oil company.

I can't warrant that I have recalled all the facts precisely. But neither will I use Mason Williams' line, "This is not a true tale, but who needs truth if it's dull." Mason Williams, "Tomato Vendetta", lyrics with brief musical excerpt ("This song’s about the Tomato Vendetta/and the tale of a man who let a/Hate for tomatoes cause him strife/He lost his job, wife, home, car, kids, and life . . .."). I just acknowledge that my best memory of truth may not correspond exactly with the facts -- including the date, which I'm assuming must have been the early 1970s.

This is a story about NBC and a Mobil Oil executive who was a former lawyer and active Kennedy family friend and political supporter named Herb Schmertz. [Photo credit: Current.]

The feisty Schmertz was Mobil's Vice President for Public Affairs. [For more background, see, e.g., the New York Times' review of his book, Herb Schmertz with William Novak, Good-by To the Low Profile (Little, Brown, 1986), Bryce Nelson, "Playing Hardball With the Press," New York Times, June 1, 1986.]

Mobil, like BP, had a need to convince the American public and their elected representatives that fish and other creatures of the deep really liked offshore drilling rigs. So Mobil, like BP, produced a slick commercial making the point.

When Herb took it to NBC, however, the network refused to air it. Why? It was controversial. (Moreover, the network may have been concerned that the "Fairness Doctrine" then in effect might have required it to air opposing views -- possibly at NBC's expense, both for production and the absence of paid time).

(More recently, NBC also refused to air one of T. Boone Pickens' commercials about natural gas. Nicholas Johnson, "Tell Me a Story," August 30, 2008.)

So what did Schmertz do? My memory is that he went to some of the environmental groups and offered to use Mobil's money to pay for the air time for them to put commercials on NBC that would respond to Mobil's assertions, including attacks on the company. Otherwise put, Mobil would be both paying twice the going commercial rates for the time it would use, and relieving NBC of any obligation or expense to put on opposing views.

NBC still refused to put on the Mobil ads.

Note that (a) NBC refused to air the oil company's ad, and (b) even the oil company recognized the need -- for both the colloquial "fairness," and the legal "Fairness Doctrine" -- to offer the public opposing views.

So move forward in time thirty or more years and what do we have? BP mounts a $50 million public relations campaign involving offshore drilling, the networks take the money and plop the commercials down in the middle of news and public affairs programming, and neither BP nor the networks make any effort to let environmental and other groups respond with equally hard hitting public service announcements. (Of course, there has been some effort, however inadequate, to provide a little balance in reporting BP's pollution, including some selected and edited comments from environmentalists. However, there is an enormous difference between that and giving them the opportunity to present their views in an unedited, highly produced commercial equivalent to what BP is permitted to do.)

Moreover, the reason why responsible television news programs used to keep such commercials out of their programs is because advocacy commercials create the appearance (and all too often the reality) that (a) they are news, (b) that they represent the editorial position of the news program, thereby raising questions about the impartial nature of the news reports generally, and (c) that they, and the network income they represent, have influenced the content (or even existence) of adverse reports about the program's advertisers.

And now you know "the rest of the [BP media manipulation] story" (with apologies to Paul Harvey).

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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