Comment: Thumbs up for BP. It’s great at marketing and, greenwashing

BP Green Thumb marketing

We are about to feel a wave of positivity across New Zealand as BP’s clever marketing gimmick, the ‘Thank You’ button, is unleashed on cars nationwide.

Now it won’t be enough to flash your lights, pop on your hazards or simply wave or smile, you can press a button on your dash and a cheery green thumbs-up will light in your rear window to thank another driver for their courtesy.

This is an excellent marketing campaign, which cunningly, as cigarette companies used to do in the last days of their ability to openly advertise, is looking to make us love an increasingly anti-social product. In this case first, petrol, and secondly, BP itself.

They are leveraging the marketing science espoused by experts such as Peter Field that emotional advertising is more effective than functional advertising. The ‘dopamine hit’ of either pressing the ‘Thank you’ button, or seeing it lit as a result of your driving is marketing gold. Hopefully, BP has made enough of them – no doubt people will clamouring to get their hands on them.

But here’s the thing. We are being greenwashed, and it won’t be the last time. Searching the internet for “BP stats on environmental performance” amazingly delivers the first several links from BP. A first class performance by their web team to manage the online reputation of a company which, while by no means the worst offender in global petroleum, has a history of a few less environmentally-conscious moves.

For instance, Ethical Consumer reports that Exxon, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips are all members of the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP), one of a number of trade associations that pressured the EU for “the removal or phasing out of renewable energy and energy efficiency targets, and of individual national support schemes for renewables”, according to a 2015 report. They also reported BP as a member of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), which says it “aims to lead the industry response to climate change”.

It’s also important that we keep questioning BP’s commitment to environmental alternatives. In 2018 BP announced it will invest just $0.5bn in low carbon technology from its total $15bn+ investment. We should perhaps be thankful though that BP aren’t at the same level as the top 21 US oil companies who apparently spent $673 million dollars over six years to influence the US political system in favour of their thinking, including a further over $50 million to block clean energy in seven US states.

Meanwhile, what are we seeing worldwide? The collective energies of Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, David Attenborough, our school-aged children, many committed organisations and (wait for it) climate change itself has helped to elevate the situation so that the UK, Ireland, Canada, and France have all recently declared climate emergencies, along with several New Zealand councils including Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. The New Zealand Government is likely to declare one soon too. Yesterday more than 50 of New Zealand’s top scientists called for a declaration of a climate emergency.

Yet, as our councils, and maybe soon government, are declaring climate emergencies, there is little evidence of anything happening. Where are the incentives to buy and use electric cars, get solar panels, recycle efficiently or at scale, reduce waste in society? Also, we are decades away from a public transport system that could adequately replace cars (if it ever should or can). We are busy licensing the bottling of water (in plastic bottles) across the country by the million and seeing them shipped overseas. It would seem we can’t even control drainage in an environmental way at the moment.

So the BP ‘Thank You’ button is the latest in what will doubtless not be the last in a charm offensive by the fuel companies to win our hearts (or is that our childrens’ hearts?; the same children who quite possibly who have been marching to highlight their concern for climate change) while their global suppliers/owners still proceed to minimise action on climate change.

So, hats off to BP for one of the marketing campaigns of the year. Shame it’s for a brand that we as New Zealanders serious about climate change should be rejecting in favour of Teslas, Nissan Leafs, Hyundai Ioniqs and, god forbid, bicycles.

Ben Goodale is a New Zealand marketing expert with decades of industry experience.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald, 4 July, 2019.