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Chevron Punk'd! How the Big Oil Company Lost Control of Its Message

Chevron's new "We Agree" ad campaign -- which includes print ads reminiscent of anti-industry posters -- launched Monday in a bid to address Big Oil's critics and find a common ground on key energy issues. But before Chevron (CVX) could get its message out, the campaign was stolen and spoofed by environmental organizations Rainforest Action Network, Amazon Watch and pranksters the Yes Men.

Just hours before Chevron sent out emails to reporters about the We Agree ad campaign, a fake release designed to look like it came from the oil company was sent out touting a similar, but more radical ad that takes responsibility for environmental damage. The release directed reporters to a counterfeit Chevron website, which displays an ad with a picture of an Ecuadorean and the statement "Oil companies should clean up their messes." The "We Agree" credo is stamped on the bottom just like the real Chevron ads.

Spoofs on ad campaigns aren't uncommon. Companies within the often vilified fossil fuels industry understand that any ad campaign is at risk of being bashed or parodied. BP, for example, received heaps of criticism for its spending $93 million on advertising in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico tragedy. The company's troubles inspired lampoons on YouTube, including the coffee spill scene, BP's handling of the spill reenacted by cats and the spoof BP Global PR account on Twitter.

The trouble for Chevron is that it lost control of the conversation it started. The "We Agree" campaign was supposed to show that Chevron reinvested its profits into energy development, including renewables, local economies and job creation. The campaign was supposed to show to viewers that Chevron supported small business and put money back into education and health initiatives. Instead, the conversation has been redirected to focus on a $27 billion oil pollution lawsuit in Ecuador against Chevron.

Real ad: Oil companies should put their profits to good use.

Fake ad: Oil companies should clean up their messes.

The spoof campaign was so effective because the hoax involved a fake press release -- sent to reporters everywhere -- that looked a helluva lot like it came from Chevron. A link to an ersatz website complete with Chevron logos and a similar URL rounded out the prank. At least one media company, Fast Company, was duped by the fake release and wrote about it before correcting it.

Chevron has of course responded, both on its website and on its official Twitter account. But here again, the pranksters took control by issuing its own fake release -- still pretending to be Chevron -- responding to the hoax. They even included a link to a fake Advertising Age website, claiming the media company was duped by the "environmentalist subterfuge."

It's hard to say whether the spoof will go viral and go down in Youtube history or whether it will drift away in the coming weeks as Chevron's ad campaign goes into overdrive. Either way, the Chevron ad campaign is threaten not just by the spoof, but by the content of the ads themselves. The "proof" -- literally examples of what Chevron is doing in renewables, communities etc. -- is on its website, where most folks are unlikely to wander. Instead, they'll see the 30-second spots and the cynics in them won't believe it.

Photos (top two) from Chevron; Bottom photo from Yes Men

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