The Great Greenwash: Human Energy

In News Generally on November 8, 2008 at 1:00 pm

What exactly is human energy?

To some human energy might suggest whatever groovy force was supposed to levitate the Pentagon during the 1967 “Confront the War Makers” March.

To others it might be the power to bend spoons with the mind or to win friends and influence your uncle. Or maybe it’s some new clean fuel that will start siphoning away federal funds à la ethanol? (Note to self: where do you sign up for that subsidy?)

But if you’re Chevron Corporation, Human Energy means just one thing: a hail-mary bid to rehabilitate a corporate brand that has seen better days.

Combine complicity with brutal dictatorships, environmental destruction and the devastation of indigenous peoples’ livelihoods with a backlash against gas prices and Big Oil profits, throw in a couple high-profile human rights cases in Ecuador and the United States, and you’ve got what amounts to a toxic cocktail for public relations.

Not to fear, Chevron’s ad men have shown the way out of the sludge. On billboards, bus stops and even coffee-cup sleeves, Chevron is pushing the new brand: Human Energy. According to this article by Steven Jones in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Chevron has poured $15 million in the past month into a massive P.R. campaign.

$15 million is a lot of money to spend on a slogan that slips dangerously into a double entendre. I trust the green that Chevron is referring to is something other than Soylent Green, but then again, for a company that has treated the human rights of indigenous people with callous indifference, anything is possible.

An Interesting Precedent: Google Searches & Gag Orders

On the first day of the Bowoto v. Chevron trial, the plaintiffs’ lawyers asked for injunctive relief to stop Chevron from flooding the Bay Area with the Human Energy ads. While I can’t knock ’em for trying, I don’t think they were able to draw a tight-enough connection between the Bowoto case and the P.R. campaign. Hiring brutal Nigerian Naval forces and Mobile Police to shoot unarmed activists is merely one part of the broad tableau of corporate malfeasance that Chevron is trying to paper over with these print ads. Without a direct reference to at least Nigeria, the prejudicial effect is too broad.

I think Judge Illston’s ruling was correct: she couldn’t stop the corporation from advertising so long as its publicity campaign didn’t directly bear on the case. Not so for the sponsored Google AdWords link that Chevron had used to hedge out the organic rankings of pro-Bowoto websites. Prior to the gag order, Chevron’s ad topped the list of any Google search that included the terms “Bowoto” or “Larry Bowoto”. The sponsored ad linked to a press release on Chevron’s website.

Judge Illston ruled that that the sponsored Google link to Chevron’s website was equivalent to a press statement and thus fell under the gag order restraining all parties from speaking to the media.

The ruling itself is significant and litigators facing big corporations should take note–particularly in human rights cases like these, where the P.R. resources of one side dwarfs the capacity of the other.

The gag order notwithstanding, Chevron has allegedly used other tactics to push its message through the media filter. One blogger at The Chevron Pit noted:

And the Chevron P.R. machine was in full swing, with familiar pro-Chevron blogger “Zennie62” attending the trial and meeting with Chevron’s P.R. people immediately – at least until Judge Susan Illston issued a gag-order ordering both sides to refrain from issuing any statements or commenting on the case (let’s see if that keeps Zennie quiet…Zennie has long been known to be a mouthpiece for Chevron in the ‘blogosphere’ and he has been under attack along with San Francisco writer Pat Murphy for being paid by Chevron to post blogs that mysteriously get google-bombed to the top of search engines. Neither Chevron, Murphy or Zennie has ever denied they get paid by Chevron even though they don’t disclose such payments on their blogs.

Just to be clear: anyone has the right to cover this case, no matter who you’re shilling for. And I don’t like accusations based on the ‘you-never-denied-it’ line of reasoning: has anyone actually bothered to ask Zennie or Murphy to disclose any payments from Chevron? But if Chevron is paying bloggers or ‘google-bombing’ them, this would probably be a violation of the gag order.


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