In 1939, studies began to suggest that smoking might not be that great for you, sullying a great American pastime and a key United States economic industry. What was once a stalwart sector and an established cultural norm soon crumbled. Throughout the ‘40s, scientists continued to link cigarettes to alarmingly higher instances of cancer and heart disease and by the late 1950s, every single U.S. state had instated laws banning the sale of cigarettes to children. An infamous 1969 surgeon general report linked smoking with low birth weight and Congress appeased mounting pressure from the public health sector by putting warning labels on cigarette packaging. In 1969, tobacco companies were the single largest product advertisers on television, and then, seemingly overnight, they lost the battle. The last cigarette ad ever to air on television ran at 11:50 p.m. during a break from The Johnny Carson Show on January 1, 1971.
Now, some observers are pointing to the parallels between Big Tobacco and Big Oil. They had the money, they had the lobbyists, and they had a faithfully addicted populace. But eventually, public opinion shifted and Big Tobacco suffered. So it’s not unreasonable to think that a similar fate is could be visited upon the oil supermajors. It certainly appears that ad agencies are using the same tactics.
“Ad Agencies Step Away From Oil and Gas in Echo of Cigarette Exodus,” a New York Times headline proclaimed last week. Already, there is a groundswell of activism from organizations such as Greenpeace USA trying to rally the advertising industry around the climate-conscious cause of boycotting Big Oil’s increasingly frequent “greenwashing” ad campaigns. One recent feel-good campaign from Chevron, which associated the supermajor oil company with clean energy was posted on YouTube just a few weeks before one of Chevron’s California refineries sprung a leak into the waters of the San Francisco Bay.
On March 16, Greenpeace and other environmental groups filed an official complaint about these kinds of oil industry ads with the Federal Trade Commission, which explicitly accused Chevron of “consistently misrepresenting its image to appear climate-friendly and racial justice-oriented, while its business operations overwhelmingly rely on climate-polluting fossil fuels, which disproportionately harm communities of color.”
Greenpeace and environmental activists are not alone. They’re part of a larger movement to shut Big Oil out of advertising, the New York Times reports. Along with a number of smaller ad agencies, major international ad firm Forsman & Bodenfors signed a pledge this month promising to halt all work with oil and gas producers, utility companies, and those industries’ lobbyists. For now, the movement is a grassroots one and there has been no policy backup, but that’s exactly how the pressure started to mount for Big Tobacco.
The comparison between Big Oil and Big Tobacco is hardly a novel one. Back in January of 2020, the Guardian published an op-ed headlined “Big oil is the new big tobacco. Congress must use its power to investigate.” In September of 2020 Vice picked up the story with its own addition, “Surprise, Big Oil Has the Same Lawyers as Big Tobacco.” And earlier just this month E&E News wrote, “Big Tobacco had to pay $206B. Is Big Oil next?” The throughline is this: Big Tobacco lied to the public and the courts for decades about the harm that they knew they were doing to their consumers’ health. Now those same voices are claiming that Big Oil lied to the public and the courts for decades about the harm they knew they were doing to the climate.
The reality, however, is that oil continues to play a vital role in our society and many of the world’s largest energy companies are also working on long-term solutions to the emissions problem. Many oil companies, especially in Europe, are already making the transition from Big Oil to Big Energy and, at some point, many of those feel-good ads that detractors claim are disingenuous now will cross that invisible threshold and go from greenwashing to simply green.