While BP is spending in the region of $400 million fumbling around in its oil spill, it’s also spending a whopping $50 million trying to convince us that it is in fact cleaning up. Part of that PR budget has gone to Google, where BP strategically bought a number of search terms to ensure that you and I get the “correct” information when we search for “oil spill”, “BP”, or “Gulf of Mexico”. They are also running a number of television ads, all reassuring us that “[BP] will get this done. [BP] will make this right”.
But let’s not be fooled. When BP talks about getting things done, they are not talking about cleaning up the destruction they’ve caused, and if they are, it is only so they can get back to the business of profit-above-all-else. Their television ads may try to convince us that the environment is their primary concern, but in fact what they actually want to make right are their shares and profit margins. Last year BP recorded profits of $26 billion. If they were really serious about their impact on the environment, they would have been setting aside some of those profits to mitigate their impact on an annual basis. Instead they’ve been basking in their profitability, and passing on fat cheques to shareholders.
In truth, those “profits” are only so large because BP hasn’t been paying all its costs. Their profits come on the back of numerous externalities which BP simply passes on to the environment and society. As I said, if BP was really serious about “making this right” they would consistently set aside part of their so-called profit to cover the full costs of their enterprise. But I guess that would cost a whole lot more than simply pulling the wool over our eyes with a $50 million PR campaign.
So it’s no surprise then that many people are protesting BP’s conduct and boycotting its products — and as with the KitKat campaign, these protests are targeting the image BP has tried to create of itself. In London, for example, where BP is based, activists scaled the company offices and unrolled a mock BP banner which played on the company’s logo. Imprinted with oil stains, it read “British Polluters”. The power of brand spanking is that it uses brands and logos against the very companies which spend so much creating them. These protests tap the most powerful aspect of brands — their recognisability — and use it to raise public awareness and (hopefully) outrage.
But the effectiveness of such protests in the long run will depend on their ability to transcend brand-based politics in favour of a broader critique. In protesting against BP, for example, it’s important we realise that the perpetrator could just have easily been Shell, Sasol, or Exxon. All these corporations run their businesses in more or less the same way, it’s just that in this case BP’s has come under the public spotlight. It’s important, however, that the spotlight doesn’t just stay on BP, but that it comes to highlight the broader system which makes possible the profit-above-all-else motive. Brand-spanking is a doorway to a more fundamental critique; brands are just a lever to be used in underlining problems rooted in the broader global economic system.
I think the problem with many consumer campaigns is that they have failed to link their protests to this broader context. Fair trade, anti-sweatshop, pro-organic, anti-child labour, buy local, or even the seemingly union strike for better wages — all these campaigns are about challenging the way corporations do business. In essence they are all speaking out against the profit-above-all-else model which motivates corporations to boost profits by cutting costs (at whatever cost to society and ecology). But in failing to connect with this broader critique, these campaigns become ad hoc, “niche” protests all competing for attention — the effect of which is to make consumers feel so guilty whenever they buy anything, that in the end the campaigns just get ignored. It’s for this reason that so many consumer campaigns are seen as campaigns of the rich: what could a working-class person possibly have to do with a drive for non-GM food?
If they are to result in any substantial changes beyond flowery words and corporate PR strategies, consumer campaigns must engage and network to create a consumer movement with many faces, challenging the system on many fronts. Campaigns need to show ordinary people that each of their causes are linked; that an anti-sweatshop campaign is ultimately fighting the same battle as protests for better wages, albeit from different angles. It is by using the BP brand to highlight the failures of all-out capitalism that the current wave of protests can go beyond this one oil spill. However, if they remain focused on BP only, they risk being mopped up along with the oil.