Economy

BP Ad Campaign Boomerangs

The emerging consensus in news reports over the weekend is that BP should have saved the money and effort it's spending on its image ad campaign because it's boomeranging.

Apparently any message short of the energy giant announcing that it has killed the gusher and that it's going to spend more on the cleanup and paying claims will fall well short of what people in the Gulf region and beyond want to hear.

President Barack Obama contributed to the mood Friday when he called the company out for spending money on advertising at the same time some of those making claims against the company charge it with dragging its heels on paying them.

But it didn't take the president's words for people to get riled up by the ad campaign.

As NPR's Debbie Elliot reported on Weekend Edition Saturday:

BP's public relations push this week included a television ad featuring CEO Tony Hayward in a coastal setting, seabirds chirping in the background. "For those affected and your families, I'm deeply sorry," Hayward said. "We will make this right."

But in towns on the Gulf Coast, BP has a credibility problem.

"Words are cheap," Alabama Republican Rep. Jo Bonner says. "It's time for action."

An excerpt with a similar theme from a story the Associated Press made available to its members Sunday:

The ads, which began appearing last week have been criticized by President Barack Obama, who said the money should be spent on cleanup efforts and on compensating fishermen and small business owners who've lost their jobs because of the spill, and to help residents and visitors of the Gulf Coast, where some beaches have been blackened by the oil and others remain threatened.

"Their best advertising is if they get this cap (in place) and they get everything cleaned up. All you've got to do is do your job and that's going to be plenty of good advertising," said Grover Robinson IV, chairman of the Escambia County Commission in the Florida Panhandle. He was referring to BP's efforts to place a cap over the gushing pipe to capture some of the flow of oil.

BP PLC spokesman Robert Wine said in an e-mail Saturday that "not a cent" has been diverted from the oil spill response to pay for the ad campaign. He said he didn't know its cost.

One feature of the TV ad you immediately notice is how pristine the beaches and the bird shown in close-up appear. It's a far cry from the actual situation, with numerous dead and dying birds being seen covered in oil goo.

The AP picks up on the dichotomy:

The ad's imagery clashes with disturbing news photographs published recently of pelicans coated in oil, some immobilized by the gunk, others struggling with crude dripping from their beaks and wings.

The problem with this is that it does something marketing experts often warn against, it reinforces a negative narrative.

For BP, that would be not only its inability to shut the well but that people, from the federal government on down, just don't trust it because of the gap between its statements and reality.

Before the accident, for instance, BP said it had the know-how and technology to deal with far greater spills than the present one. It turns out it didn't.

Then it initially said only 5,000 barrels were spewing from the oil well. Experts concluded much more oil was pumping into the Gulf's waters.

In a number of ways, what BP has said hasn't tracked with what people see. Critics point to the video ad as just one more example.

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