Out, Damned Spill, Out

Illustration by Andy Friedman

The day before Tony Hayward went up to Capitol Hill, Bart Stupak, the chairman of the House subcommittee before which Hayward would be testifying, predicted that BP’s hapless CEO would be “sliced and diced” at the forthcoming hearing. Were Stupak inclined to more purple-hued prose, he could have added that Hayward would also be filleted and fricasseed, folded, spindled, and mutilated, as well as forcefully shat upon. What Stupak—being a member of Congress with a typical congressman’s degree of self-awareness, which is to say less than none—would never have forecast, though he could have done so with equal confidence, was that the only thing as horrific as Hayward’s content-free, stonewalling performance would be the shameless preening and witless blustering of most of Stupak’s colleagues, and the unfathomable stupidity of one Republican (Barton, Joe) would overshadow the whole charade.

That Hayward managed in the hearing to maintain a certain narcotized composure probably had less to do with actual narcotics (though, hey, you never know) than with his understanding that what he was enduring was a ritualized necessity. Like the Obama White House, Hayward’s company wanted to turn last week into an “inflection point,” a chance to pivot to a better place regarding the crisis in the gulf. For the administration, Obama’s Oval Office address and meeting with BP’s bosses were designed to show that the president has a handle on the disaster and a plan to cope with it. For BP, the agreement to put $20 billion into a damage-payment fund, the decision to forgo issuing dividends, and Hayward’s turn on the Hill were meant to blot out its recent PR malfunctions—and cast the company in a newly responsible and contrite light.

Turning the corner and remediating whatever political damage Obama has suffered will not be easy for him. But it will be a stroll in the park compared to what lies ahead for BP. This is, after all, a company that’s devoted hundreds of millions of dollars over a decade to portraying itself, with no small success, as the world’s cleaner, greener energy behemoth. Now that effort lies in tatters, as each day the gusher in the gulf renders BP’s image more and more irredeemable and its bankruptcy more conceivable.

To which you might say: Serves them right. And, trust me, I’m with you all the way, but there’s more to say than that. To no small extent, BP’s public image before the spill both reflected and catered to our national hypocrisy when it comes to fossil fuels. To our desire to feel virtuous while continuing our addiction to oil. As the country grapples with moving to a saner energy future, there are lessons to be learned from the downfall of BP—not the least of which is, to quote Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The rebranding of British Petroleum began in 2000, when, after merging with Amoco and taking over arco, the company adopted the tagline “Beyond Petroleum” and changed its name to BP. Along with the new slogan came a new logo, created by the design wizards at Landor Associates—a stylized yellow sun with green edges that let it pass just as easily as a flower. Soon enough, billboard ads were popping up all over the United States. SOLAR, NATURAL GAS, WIND, HYDROGEN. AND OH YES, OIL, read one. WE BELIEVE IN ALTERNATIVE ENERGY. LIKE SOLAR AND CAPPUCCINO, read another.

“It was probably the ballsiest rebrand in corporate-identity history,” says my friend Neil Parker, a corporate-branding guru. “Its scale was vast: It meant re-skinning tens of thousands of retail and refining locations, repainting tens of thousands of vehicles, and re-outfitting hundreds of thousands of employees. Ballsier yet was the idea that BP could position itself as an environmental leader, but a lot of smart people thought it was a brilliant way for the company to make itself friendly to consumers while ‘de-position- ing’ its competitors as petro-dinosaurs. And that may have been true, had BP actually moved beyond petroleum or acted as an environmental leader.”

But it did not. Though BP’s former CEO, John Browne, made headlines with a splashy pledge in 2005 that his firm would invest $8 billion over the next ten years in renewable-energy development, this is roughly what BP spends annually on oil exploration and production. In the early years of the “Beyond Petroleum” campaign, the company plowed more money into advertising than into renewables—and even now, BP’s investment in hydrogen, wind, solar, and biofuels amounts to just 6 percent of its overall capital expenditures. And this leaves aside the tens of millions of dollars that BP has spent on lobbying against safety regulations, even as it’s compiled the most abysmal safety record of any major oil company. (Safety violations by BP over the past five years: 760. By Exxon Mobil: one.)

Indeed, for BP, the most damning aspect of the catastrophe in the gulf has been the emergence of copious evidence of its systematic recklessness, followed closely by that of its mendacity (the lowballing of estimates of the oil flow from the well leaps to mind). Then there has been Hayward’s maladroitness, starting with his galling whine, “I’d like my life back.” All this would have been bad for any oil company in such circumstances. But for one with a sunflower for its logo, it fosters an impression that extends beyond callousness into the realm of creepiness.

Equally striking has been the company’s unskillfulness—you could say incompetence—in dealing with the political fallout from the crisis. “They haven’t taken the initiative on anything; instead, they’ve been defensive and confrontational,” says one sharp operative who’s worked for years at the nexus of business and politics. “They could have proposed the fund. They could be calling environmental groups, saying, ‘Hey, you guys have thousands of volunteers, we’ll put up $20 million, let’s call them in’—there’s not a group in the country that wouldn’t jump at that. When Obama wasn’t calling Hayward, why didn’t they have him call the White House switchboard? If Obama doesn’t call back, you tell the press, ‘Hey, I tried, but I couldn’t get through,’ and watch the blowback. If he does call back, you look good for reaching out first—and you’ve shifted some responsibility away from you and toward them.”

Having thoroughly bungled the first two months of the crisis in terms of its public image, it’s hard to imagine BP—once it actually stops the undersea geyser in the gulf—pulling off the longer-term trick of fixing the damage to its doomstruck brand. “The spill puts BP in a nasty double bind,” says Parker. “The ‘Beyond Petroleum’ positioning and flower motif are not only almost comically ironic, but in their falseness, they reinforce the notion that the company isn’t to be trusted. And worse, they can’t be escaped. BP won’t be able to change its brand anytime soon, since caring about surface issues such as logos will appear monumentally tone-deaf now, and on top of that, the company can no longer afford the half a billion dollars that it would cost.”

All of which brings us back to the lessons of this mess—not for BP, but for America. For years, the company’s marketing played to the contradictory impulses felt by consumers when it came to energy and the environment: to our concern about the future of the planet, on one hand, and our inclination to duck the hard choices entailed by doing anything about it on the other.

One recent BP TV ad illustrates the point. A young woman standing outside a state park is asked by an interviewer, “What would you rather have, a car or a cleaner environment?” To which she replies, “I can’t imagine being without my car. Of course, I’d rather have a clean environment. But that compromise is very hard to make where we are.” Followed by this copy: “We voluntarily introduced cleaner fuels, six years before EPA mandates. These low-sulfur fuels reduce ozone pollution. And are available in 40 U.S. cities … It’s a start.”

What BP was offering was the illusion that we don’t have to compromise, that we don’t have to choose, that we can tinker around the edges and everything will be fine. In the weeks ahead, as the Senate takes up energy reform, a similar argument—albeit one never stated this bluntly—will underlie much of the debate. As things stand now, there aren’t 60 votes in the upper chamber to pass a bill that includes the single measure that would begin weaning the country off its dependence on fossil fuels: putting a price on carbon. At the moment, the talk inside the White House is all about getting behind a less ambitious bill, passing it in the Senate, and then attempting to insert a carbon-pricing mechanism when the thing is merged with the cap-and-trade bill passed by the House last year.

There are countless reasons to believe that this is a pipe dream. That what we’re likely to end up with instead is a law festooned with various well-intentioned conservation measures that will do little to alter the fundamentals of American energy or climate policy, and next to nothing to shift our economy to one fueled by green innovation. But let’s hope that somehow the president finds a way to prevent that outcome. In BP, we see a company that undertook a phony transformation and now lies in ruin. One lesson here should be that something similar can happen to countries, too.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

Out, Damned Spill, Out