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The BP Ad Bonanza of 2010: Best and Worst Campaigns Inspired by the Spill

The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico produced one positive phenomenon: the oil-savvy consumer.

We suddenly started to understand where oil came from. Phrases like junk shot entered into those parochial water cooler conversations and this time people were talking about oil, not Tommy Lee. This presented an interesting conundrum for Big Oil: how to repair or protect their brands in the eyes of newly educated and cynical consumers? Some companies in other industries couldn't resist using current events as a marketing opportunity.

We chose the best and worst examples of post-BP-spill marketing and PR in 2010. Some were cringe-worthy, some straight out of a tired playbook, and some subtly brilliant. The winners:

Tackiest ad and best manipulation of the national media

Leave it to low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines to satisfy anyone's appetite for tasteless ads. The post-spill ad says "Check out the Oil on Our Beaches" and displays some oiled-up babes in bikinis.

As BNET colleagues Brett Snyder notes, Spirit, already known for its sophomoric ads, got what it wanted: free national publicity.
Inevitable ad campaign that was doomed to fail

BP's campaign highlighting its response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill never had a chance. The "Making It Right" campaign was standard issue from companies in BP's position. It aimed to show the company working to fix the problem and to deliver the obligatory "we're sorry" line.

The company also put out a slew of documentary-style videos and photos of its response effort. It would have been criticized for not doing this.

Still, BP ended up pissing off regular folk and politicians, including President Obama, after the pricetag was revealed: the company spent $93 million (as of September) on its post-spill national advertising.

Best BP-funded ad

BNET colleague Jim Edwards noted earlier this year how much spill-inspired advertising came out in the weeks following the disaster and that, interestingly, some were made possible courtesy of BP itself. Some states -- Florida, for example -- went through those BP ad funds a bit too quickly.

But at least one city got it right. New Orleans took a humorous dig at the British-based BP in its $5 million tourism campaign. The tagline reads "This isn't the first time New Orleans has survived the British," a reference to Gen. Andrew Jackson who repelled an assault on the city in 1814.

Best anti-oil ad that never mentions the Gulf spill

Who is the No. 1 pop culture symbol for oil? Texas oil baron J.R. Ewing from the long-running TV series Dallas, of course. German solar module maker SolarWorld launched an ad campaign this summer featuring J.R. Ewing actor Larry Hagman, who happens to have possibly the largest residential solar arrays in the U.S. installed at his California home.

The TV ads never mention the BP oil spill. Instead, Hagman, wearing the Ewing trademark 10-gallon hat, talks about how he quit oil years ago. The deep Ewing laugh caps off a well-timed campaign that doesn't come off as opportunistic.

The German version

For best ad hijacking

Chevron's 'We Agree' campaign failed not because of its content. The TV ads featured Chevron employees and "everyday" people talking about what oil companies should be doing, each time ending with the tagline "We Agree." The print ads were cleverly reminiscent of anti-industry posters. And the campaign, to its credit, never mentions the oil spill even though it was clearly aimed at addressing critics of the industry.

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. The result? A decently smart ad campaign that got attention because of the prank, not Chevron's intended message.

Best fratricidal campaign

Exxon (XOM) introduced last year a clever series of ads where employees talk about how they're helping solve the world's energy problems. None of these ads talk about oil Exxon's core business and instead highlights work in advanced biofuels, natural gas, and carbon capture.

Rather than change that fairly effective branding, Exxon took a different more opaque approach to PR and advertising after the spill. First, it launched its Perspectives blog -- in contrast to its typically controlled and conservative business approach -- and wasted no time sticking it to BP.

The We're-Not-BP campaign continued this fall when Exxon, along with Chevron, Shell (RDS), and ConocoPhillips (COP), ran full-page newspaper ads meant to tout the Big Oil group's plan to spend $1 billion to build a new oil containment system to avoid another devastating spill. The ad never mentioned BP, but it effectively threw the company under the bus anyway.

Worst PR maneuvering

The ethanol industry immediately saw an opportunity to sell itself as a homegrown fuel that doesn't create oil spills. Corn and ethanol interests waited less than three weeks before launching a guerrilla PR campaign with Twitter messages like this one from the Nebraska Corn Growers Association: "There is a fuel option that doesn't result in oil spills in the ocean. It's known as #ethanol."

Unfortunately, the industry forgot one pesky little detail that destroyed their credibility. Agriculture has contributed to an environmental problem called creeping dead zones that showed up in the Gulf of Mexico long before the oil spill.

The pro-ethanol trade group Growth Energy launched a $2.5 million "Just the Facts" campaign just days before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and BP's damaged well began spewing oil into the Gulf. One of the ads notes that 'No beaches have been closed due to ethanol spills.'

The ad campaign continued for six months and even though it was created before the spill, the "beaches" spot comes off as exploitative and opportunistic.


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