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Fueling an oily future

Art activists Platform look at BP's sponsorship of the Olympics

November 24, 2011
4 min read

BP launched their 2012 Olympics sponsorship advertising campaign in July 2011, just over one year after the 87-day oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. The re-seduction of public opinion began in televisions, high streets and roadsides across the country. Since the Deepwater Horizon tragedy the BP clean-up has taken place in two dimensions: the seabed, fragile coastal ecology, habitats and livelihoods of the Gulf; and that of its shamed image, justly sullied by a catastrophe caused by its own negligent, cost-cutting behaviour. The opportunity to be seen as a good corporate citizen through its sponsorship of the Olympics is magnificent timing from BP’s perspective.

This sponsorship support is not provided as a form of philanthropy, but as an integral part of engineering the social and political circumstances that will best ensure the long-term security of their investments in oil and gas projects. Approached as an engineering challenge, the corporation tends to see all opposition to its activities as solvable with the appropriate time, capital and techniques.

The construction of an offshore platform is one of the most expensive projects on earth in the 21st century.  It can only offer a high return on capital if oil production if maintained over two or three decades. The maintainence of this production is usually threatened by social and political shifts in the countries of extraction. Any such threat to production – or the perception that that threat might exist – can immediately undermine the profitability of a corporation. BP’s share value was almost halved by the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, not because of the potential costs of the oil spill clean up, but because investors were concerned that the company’s future prospects in the US were being undermined by the collapse of support in Washington DC and in the US media.

To guard against any such threat to the company’s value, BP works constantly to engineer its ‘social license to operate’. This is a term widely used in business and government circles and usually applies to the process of engendering support for a company’s activities in the communities who live close to their factories, oil wells and pipelines. However it can shed light on how corporations construct public support far from the places of extraction or manufacture – for example how BP builds support in London and the UK.

In the summer of 2010, a large swathe of the British political establishment called on the White House to ‘stop bashing BP’ – support that assisted the company in persuading President Obama to say on TV: “BP is a strong and viable company and it is in all our interests that it stays that way”. To construct and maintain this support, BP focuses on building a positive image in the eyes of politicians, diplomats, civil servants, journalists, academics, NGO’s and cultural commentators. These groups are known as the ‘special publics’ or ‘clients’ in the public relations industry. Building a supportive attitude within the ‘special publics’ can be done through direct engagement and dialogue, through advertising, and through financial support – funding academic posts at universities, creating programmes in schools, sponsoring culture such as Tate or the British Museum, and financing sports such as the 2012 Olympics.

The BP Olympics advertising includes images of a runner on a pristine beach, calling to mind the Louisiana coastline which remains oil-soaked to this day. The choice of imagery here seems a bit of an oversight by the PR agencies Ogilvy and Landor. The campaign seeks to dress BP in green, making references to BP’s use of biofuels for the Games. Yet only 40 out of 5000 vehicles will use this source that campaign groups argue is unsustainable because it necessitates large scale planting of monoculture crops that wipe out biodiversity, deplete soil and exacerbate world hunger.

The success of the campaign rests not on these details however. Via global media attention the BP brand is associated with the hype, passion and fervent feel-good factors of the biggest international athletics event. This lends the company a guise of social acceptability that enables harmful oil and gas projects the world over. As such, BP extracts what it needs to continue profiting on its investments – a social licence to operate.

For more on BP sponsorship, follow @PlatformLondon on Twitter for their upcoming arts publication ‘Not if but when: Culture Beyond Oil’ and the ‘Tate a Tate’ audio tour.

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