Chevron's decision to launch a splashy ad campaign with the tagline "We Agree" was hardly the first time that a global energy company has spent millions of dollars trying to enhance positive perceptions of their brand by pivoting away from public opposition. But it may be one of the last times that we see energy companies trying to saddle up to members of the public as if they were a potential date at a Georgetown bar.
Chevron's new campaign was punked by the activist-perfomers The Yes Men, who partnered with the Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch to create a fake version of the "We Agree" campaign that was erroneously picked up by the media as authentic. The Yes Men sent out a fake press release hours before the launch of the Chevron campaign and created a fake website at www.chevron-weagree.com that fooled reporters into thinking their campaign was real. Chevron is currently fighting an $18 billion lawsuit in Ecuador over the actions of their subsidiary Texaco, dating back twenty years. Chevron claims that they have repaired the damage caused by the oilfields, and they contend that the Ecuadorian courts have been biased against them. According to the Rainforest Action Network, the company is launching this campaign in order to avoid paying one of the largest settlements in history.
Chevron has launched a campaign that has struck a hollow chord with the public before. Their "People Do" campaign asked rhetorical questions about their good works including restoring marshes once used for oil exploration. Many of those "good deeds" were required by law.
The Yes Men are tapping into a rich tradition of political theater that lies somewhere in between Guy Debord of the French situationist movement and Ashton Kutcher. As the power of social media continues to grow, we'll see more and more of this type of takedown. There are no shortage of ad campaigns that deserve to be mocked.
I saw this campaign from Shell in the San Francisco airport during the heart of the Gulf Oil disaster.
If they really had the technology, it would have been nice if they had gone and shut down the exploding well in the Gulf. But I suppose that wasn't the technology they were talking about.
Or how about this campaign from Kentucky Fried Chicken for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation?
KFC committed to donating fifty cents for every bucket of chicken they sold to the Foundation. At about the same time they launched and promoted their 'Double-Down' sandwich which consists of two deep-fried filets of chicken surrounding two pieces of bacon, two pieces of monterey jack cheese, and the Colonel's sauce. It's hard to sell a sandwich with 32 grams of fat and be a respected voice in the fight against breast cancer.
As time goes on, these sorts of campaigns will begin to diminish. Chevron's recent campaigns will be remembered as oddities that were born out of a time when weak research suggested that the public could be tricked in a lasting way by a catchy ad, relentlessly applied. The era of greenwashing is over for the simple reason that it doesn't work. For the price of a URL and a little wit, a campaign that is out of step with reality can be hacked and become more of a liability than a potential benefit.
There will still be companies with reputational liabilities that will push their eager creatives to design campaigns to shine up their names. For them, I offer the following advice.
1) Resolve your crisis.
Before GE could launch their Ecomagination effort, which brought together their various ecologically-oriented businesses into one united initiative, they had to deal with their ongoing Hudson River pollution liability. Between 1947 and 1977 GE dumped 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River. Environmental advocates and the EPA demanded that they dredge the river. GE passionately believed they had fulfilled their moral and legal responsibility to clean the abandoned site and litigated to protect themselves. Eventually they concluded that paying the price to clean the Hudson was less expensive than the continuing attacks on their reputation. There is no role for a mass communications effort while the public doesn't trust your desire to resolve your responsibilities.
CEOs need to be reminded to be humble in their declarations of social leadership. The idea of a multi-billion dollar company being "green" is almost ridiculous, since the phrase has no agreed-upon meaning and there is always something more you can do. That's one reason that "sustainability" has gained favor as a goalset for corporate leaders. To be sustainable means that you bring social, environmental, economic and cultural considerations into your decisions, and that you're setting up your enterprise to be profitable for years to come. When it comes to communications, the best way to be humble is to listen to your employees, customers and the community. Chevron tried to do this by creating a fake dialogue; if you fake it you'll rapidly find that you'll be in dialogue with someone like the Yes Men.
3) Let your employees lead.
Employees need to be a primary audience for your communications. They're the ones who have to live with your reputation day in and day out. One employee at a large Midwestern conglomerate once told me that his company's poor reputation became uncomfortable for him whenever he went to an out-of-state funeral. "There's nothing worse," he told me, "than having someone feel so compelled to attack your company that he'd interrupt your mourning to do so." A poor reputation will affect your stock price, but it's much more strongly felt by your employees when they go home to their kids every night. These employees have an extraordinary motivation to help you solve whatever problem you face; inviting them into the solution and goal-setting process will empower them to share your message. Their private conversation at funerals and on Twitter will be much more effective at swaying the public than any ad campaign.
4) Set North Star Goals. A North Star Goal is an aspirational goal that combines your business objectives with a higher purpose. These goals, which are being set by an increasing number of Fortune 500 companies, have the following attributes:
Actionable by everyone in the company
Tied into the core of the business
Inspirational to your employees and customers
Achievable in 5 - 15 years
In service of a cause larger than making money
Companies that are setting North Star Goals are finding that by being in step with society's demands bold forces come to their aid.
Starbucks' North Star Goal is ethically sourcing every cup of coffee and making every cup either recyclable or reusable.
Toyota's North Star Goal is to make cars that never crash and clean the air as they drive.
P&G's North Goal is to sell $50 billion in sustainable-innovation products and send zero consumer or manufacturing waste to landfills.
No doubt we'll still see a few last campaigns like Chevron's "We Agree" campaign. But you can be comforted by the thought that those campaigns will do more to harm the companies they represent than help them.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
The Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.
Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of Americaby Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
The executive producer of Masterpiece says Jane Austen works a lot better on screen than Hemingway does.
For 44 years, PBS’s Masterpiece franchise has brought high-end Britain TV programs to American audiences. While the ultra-successful Downton Abbey comes from an original screenplay, many of Masterpiece’s shows over the years have been adapted from great works of literature. And the vast majority of those great works of literature, unsurprisingly, have been British.
But every so often, an American novel—like James Agee’s A Death in the Family or Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark—has been turned into a Masterpiece. On Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Rebecca Eaton, the longtime executive producer of Masterpiece, said she wished that the program had tackled more U.S. authors over the years. “The reasons that we haven't are twofold,” she said. “One is money, the second is money. And the third is money. Also, the dark nature of American literature, which is something to think about for a moment."
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
The meaning of the Confederate flag is best discerned in the words of those who bore it.
This afternoon, in announcing her support for removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley asserted that killer Dylann Roof had “a sick and twisted view of the flag” which did not reflect “the people in our state who respect and in many ways revere it.” If the governor meant that very few of the flag’s supporters believe in mass murder, she is surely right. But on the question of whose view of the Confederate Flag is more twisted, she is almost certainly wrong.
Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage.