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Creatives urged to wash their hands of dirty work in fo...

Business Maverick


Creatives urged to wash their hands of dirty work in fossil fuel

Coal delivery trucks queue outside Eskom’s Kusile Power Station in Mpumalanga on 15 October 2021. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Campaign wants agencies to stop making propaganda for companies harming the Earth.

It’s no surprise that Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis — and author of some of the 20th century’s most provocative theories about human motivation — had a relative who achieved notoriety in an area of psychological manipulation: public relations.

Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays — known as “the father of public relations” — published his influential work on PR in 1928, titled Propaganda. In it, he argued that public relations during peacetime was not a gimmick, but a necessity.

He wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of … It is they who pull the wires that control the ­public mind.”

Father of spin

Bernays, notes Professor Richard Gunderman in The Conversation, later became known as the “father of spin” and his publicity campaigns were said to be the stuff of legend. Gunderman observes that to overcome “sales resistance” to cigarette smoking among women, Bernays staged a demonstration at the 1929 Easter Parade in New York in which he paid fashionable young suffragettes to flaunt their “Torches of Freedom” during a time when public smoking by women was still a social taboo.

Over the years, Bernays acquired an impressive list of clients, ranging from General Electric, Procter & Gamble and the American Tobacco Company to media outlets such as CBS and politicians including US President Calvin Coolidge.

“To counteract President Coolidge’s stiff image, Bernays organised ‘pancake breakfasts’ and White House concerts with Al Jolson and other Broadway performers.”

Decades later, Bernays wrote in his memoirs about his shock at discovering that Nazi Germany’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, had kept some of his work in his personal library.

PR works

Bernays viewed PR as an “understanding of the facts of human nature”, according to the Cambridge Historical Society, rather than a manipulation of it, but his views on propaganda could have provided lessons for the PR industry’s spectacular failures in recent years, most recently highlighted in South Africa by the Bell Pottinger reputation-laundering scandal involving the Guptas.

Let’s face it: PR works. It’s effective and can spread news and information more efficiently than any government media. It can help to protect, enhance or build reputations — or it can help to destroy them.

That power should be used with more responsibility, believes a campaign aimed at encouraging the creative industry, its staff and clients to stop taking on work from the fossil fuel industry.

News reports aren’t optimistic. From scorching heat waves in Britain and ferocious wildfires in southern Europe to devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal and shocking declines of natural ecosystems, the world is being ravaged by accelerating climate change.

Clean Creatives

Now is not the time to puff up the egos, narratives and bottom lines of fossil fuel companies, say supporters of the Clean ­Creatives campaign.

Stephen Horn, the creator of the comedy news show Politically Aweh, launched a local chapter of Clean Creatives after hearing about its work in the Drilled podcast about climate change, the role of the fossil fuel industry and its tactics to slow climate action in the US.

“It was broadly about there being campaigns to undermine the prestige factor that goes with working in the fossil fuel industry or with big clients and companies — whether they’re ad agencies or law firms that represent and defend the interests of the fossil fuel industry. [Such campaigns are] needed to try to start shifting the social norms around the acceptability of working with these companies because, essentially, the science is clear,” says Horn.

Big Oil spends billions a year on advertising to polish its image. It’s time to change the narrative, believes Horn, who tweeted “into the void” that a Clean Creatives chapter should be set up in South Africa, and tagged a few agencies, including King James, which jumped on board.

Signing up

In little over a month, the SA chapter has attracted media attention and held its first meeting, with 13 agencies plus 24 individuals already signing its pledge. The campaign has 332 agencies and 864 individual signatories around the world.

It hopes to attract others to pledge not to work for companies, trade associations or front groups associated with the fossil fuel industry. It wants advertising and PR professionals to be picky about the work they do and the brands they associate with to promote a greener future for the planet.

PR and ad agencies have had a productive association with the oil and tobacco industries, developing and refining tactics to deflect criticism and deny liability. Clean Creatives believes that, with enough momentum, there will be less willingness not only to polish reputations, but also to fund fossil fuel projects.

Ad bans

As a result of the campaign’s work internationally, the city of Amsterdam has banned fossil fuel ads, France has imposed a national ban and Seattle has banned fossil fuel ads on public transport.

Clean Creatives notes that BP lost a legal case in the UK brought against it by ­ClientEarth, challenging the oil company’s false claims about its commitment to climate action, and a similar legal action was filed in the US against Chevron by Global Witness and Earthjustice.

Shell has been ordered by multiple Dutch courts to stop campaigns that contain greenwashing claims.

“Each of these cases brings agencies that work with fossil fuel corporations closer to legal scrutiny and the public eye.” DM168

First published in Daily Maverick 168

Absa OBP

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  • I’m one of the people behind this campaign in South Africa. We’re grateful to Georgina and the DM for the coverage, but must note that there is an error in this piece – to the best of our knowledge, King James has not endorsed our work. (We hope they will.)

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