BP and the National Wildlife Federation

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(This article is an extract from a longer article "Endangered Wildlife Friends Are Here!" by John Stauber in PR Watch, Volume 8, No. 3 3rd quarter 2001. AS with other entries in SourceWatch it can be edited and added to.) --

I recently stopped at a BP/Amoco gas station near the office of PR Watch. The gas pumps were gaily adorned with colorful posters featuring stuffed toy timber wolves, golden frogs, elephants, spotted leopards and panda bears. "Endangered wildlife friends are here!" the poster proclaimed. "Collect All 5--Only $2.99." The posters carried the logo of Amoco at the top. Beneath a picture of the spotted leopard, the logo of the National Wildlife Federation accompanied text explaining that sale of the stuffed animals would help raise funds for the NWF. Inside I found the stuffed toys, bagged in plastic and labeled "made in China." When I asked the cashier, he said they weren't moving too well. He pointed to a corner display where they had marked the price down from $2.99 to $1.99, "just to get rid of them."

In February 2001, journalist Michelle Cole reported that the National Wildlife Federation had formed a "partnership" with BP/Amoco. NWF gladly accepts corporate donations, and Cole noted that it has also "partnered with some businesses with which other environmental groups would not want to be associated. As a part of a special promotion, customers who purchased at least eight gallons at BP/Amoco gas stations could also get stuffed toys, 'Endangered Wildlife Friends,' tagged with the National Wildlife Federation logo and bearing the message that fossil fuel consumption contributes to global climate change. ... Marketing experts refer to this type of activity as 'branding.' Or, roughly translated, the lengths to which businesses, organizations and some individuals will go to burn a favorable image into the public's minds and hearts and to be distinctly remembered for it."

When Cole interviewed NWF's Vice President of Communications, Philip B. Kavits, he declined to say how much money his group had received from BP/Amoco, and he defended the partnering because it helped NWF "reach a new audience." I called Kavits myself in late July, and this time he was a bit more forthcoming. "The latest figure is $113,000," he said when I asked him about the money. Kavits admitted that the NWF has no measurable evidence that peddling plastic stuffed animals from gas stations really contributes in any way to public education on the issue of global warming, but he asserted that "large numbers of people did go to our website where they found more information."

I asked if the "made in China" logo meant that the stuffed animals were made in sweatshops. Kavits said he didn't know. He also said that NWF's partnership with BP/Amoco did not imply an endorsement.

"BP is one of a huge number of partners that we've dealt with," Kavits said. "This is a small one compared with others we've done. All of Dannon's yogurt containers for years carried fun facts. It really got kids attuned, hopefully, to what's out there in the world. ... It's a two-way relationship. NWF gets revenue out of it. ... In return, hopefully these companies get a chance to showcase their concern." In any case, Kavits asserted, the promotional arrangement with BP/Amoco "ended in February."

Perhaps it had ended in the minds of NWF, but at the BP/Amoco station I visited, the promotion was still being hyped in September, half a year later. I conducted an unscientific survey of one customer who agreed with me that having wildlife posters from the National Wildlife Federation on the pump did sound like an endorsement. She was in a hurry, however, and didn't have much time to talk with me. She paid her bill and drove off in her giant SUV, minus the stuffed toy and without any apologies or evident concern about its gas-guzzling, climate-destroying engine.

Pieces of Silver

The $113,000 that NWF has received from BP/Amoco is pocket change for a company that spends millions of dollars on PR and advertising to create the impression that it cares for the environment more than, say, Exxon. From the company's point of view, being able to decorate its pumps with NWF posters for this price is an incredible marketing coup.

BP/Amoco has been carefully positioning itself as a good guy in the fossil fuel industry. It was one of the first oil companies to break publicly with the Global Climate Coalition, the industry's front group on the issue of global warming. It has even tried changing its name, claiming that "BP" stands for "Beyond Petroleum" instead of British Petroleum.

Now that the Bush administration plans to allow oil extraction in the Alaska National Wildlife Preserve, however, BP/Amoco finds itself on the horns of a PR dilemma. Like other oil companies, it stands to make a bundle of money by drilling there, even though the preserve is home to some real "wildlife friends," not just stuffed animals. Like the rest of the oil industry, BP knows very well that it is not really "beyond petroleum," and when this kind of business opportunity comes its way, good-guy rhetoric quickly falls by the wayside.

This contradiction is merely a minor PR dilemma for the spinmeisters employed by BP/Amoco, whose ranks include Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, MSI Strategic Communications and BSMG Worldwide.

For the National Wildlife Federation, however, it ought to be a major embarrassment. If it is, though, Kavits give no such indication when I interviewed him.

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