Above Photo: Feodora Chiosea / Alamy Stock Vector.
Some of the world’s biggest polluters are paying social media celebrities and environmentalists to promote their brands to billions of people.
Oil and gas supermajors including Shell and BP are using UK influencers to push false solutions to the climate crisis and manufacture a more family friendly image, DeSmog can reveal.
The influencers have included a popular former BBC presenter, a polar explorer, and an exasperated father of five who needs a break and finds it in the form of BP’s rewards app.
The campaigns have been deployed across a number of social media platforms and are part of a global effort to give “millennials a reason to connect emotionally” with oil and gas firms, and to tackle their perception as “the bad guys”.
DeSmog analysed examples of more than 100 influencers being paid to promote fossil fuel firms worldwide since 2017, from the US to Malaysia, in campaigns that have reached billions of people.
Our analysis uncovered promotional material from two PR firms representing Shell, boasting of the success of their online advertising. One of the PR companies claimed that content fronted by UK inventor Colin Furze reached nearly a billion people, while another claimed that a campaign with explorer Robert Swan OBE made Shell’s audience “31 percent more likely to believe” that the oil company is “committed to cleaner fuels”.
In 2020, leaked internal documents from BP showed how the firm sought to “reach influencers” in order to become “more relatable, passionate, and authentic” and “win the trust of the younger generation” – admitting that the company is “seen as one of the bad guys”.
Shell last year advertised for a new staff member to manage its TikTok campaigns, while oil and gas giant ExxonMobil has been the highest advertising spender on Facebook and Instagram in the last five years, shelling out $23.1 million since June 2018.
“There’s an endless supply” of greenwashing adverts on social media, environmental content creator Jacob Simon told DeSmog. “While there’s more knowledge in general around climate change and the harms of fossil fuels, I think that people have a lot of trust in creators. When influencers that people know and respect talk about something, they’re likely to believe them.”
‘We Needed Them To Think Differently About Shell’
Shell appears to have been the most prominent employer of influencer advertising over the last seven years.
In April, for example, the fossil fuel giant released a five-part YouTube series hosted by ex-BBC presenter Dallas Campbell, which touted the net zero benefits of hydrogen and featured one-on-one interviews with two Shell executives.
Oil and gas companies have been heavily promoting hydrogen as a green fuel, despite the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimating that hydrogen will represent at best 2.1 percent of total energy consumption in 2050.
“Shell has the ambition to make enough hydrogen from renewable power to kick-start this energy revolution,” Campbell said in the first video of the series, which has gained nearly 30,000 views.
The former BBC presenter has also promoted the series on his personal social media channels. On Instagram, Campbell encouraged his followers to watch his “Hydrogen powered adventure!” but did not tag Shell, nor mention his commercial relationship with the brand.
This was also not the first time that Campbell had partnered with Shell. In 2016, he presented the social media coverage of the company’s Make the Future London festival. “Dallas was fantastic,” Shell said in a testimonial following the event, adding that the social media campaign had fetched over a million views, which the company described as “absolutely huge!”
In 2022, a Harvard University paper found that a “green innovation” narrative was one of the key social media tactics deployed by fossil fuel companies. Analysing 2,325 social media posts from 22 major European polluters, the report found that 72 percent of posts from oil and gas firms tried to emphasise their spending on green technology.
As the study also pointed out, however, these firms invested just 1.7 percent of their annual capital expenditures in low carbon technologies between 2010 and 2018.
It also appears that major polluters have been using influential environmentalists to bolster their social media campaigns.
This includes Robert Swan, a popular advocate for the protection of Antarctica who received an OBE in 1995 after becoming the first person to walk both poles.
In late 2017, Shell sponsored Swan and his son, Barney, to travel to the South Pole and promote its “renewable” biofuels, with Shell distributing the campaign widely on social media.
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Behind the publicity stunt was one of Shell’s principal PR agencies, Edelman. The PR firm boasts on its website that the expedition organically reached 600 million people on social media and was so successful that it increased “positive attitudes towards [Shell]” by 12 percent, and made Shell’s audience “31 percent more likely to believe” that the oil company is “committed to cleaner fuels”.
“The company [Shell] tasked Edelman with the job of giving millennials a reason to connect emotionally with Shell’s commitment to a sustainable future,” the Edelman website says. “We needed them to forget their prejudices about ‘big oil’ and think differently about Shell.”
Robert Swan told DeSmog that he is not a celebrity or an influencer but an “explorer” and that Shell helped in their “effort to support biofuel”.
“We needed a backup fuel because the sun doesn’t always shine,” he said.
This was echoed by his son Barney, who advises businesses on “reducing their environmental impact” and runs an environmental charity. He told DeSmog that to make meaningful progress towards the energy transition “you have to work with big industry,” adding that Shell’s biofuels are part of that solution.
“I’ve definitely copped a lot of criticism for it [working with Shell],” he said, yet adding that Shell offered him, “a younger person”, the opportunity to “feel represented” and “build more trust” in their so-called “nature based solutions”.
Ultimately, he said the expedition “was not a Shell story – it was a father and son story, having a good go of it.”
‘The Wrong Side Of History’
British inventor Colin Furze, who has 12.5 million followers on YouTube, has also worked with Shell on its social media output. In a campaign produced for the fossil fuel giant by advertising agency EssenceMediacom, Furze co-hosted a six week virtual competition “challenging students to solve real life energy challenges”.
The campaign was co-hosted by US-based science influencer Astronaut Abby and won World Media Group’s 2021 Corporate Influencer Award. According to the award submission, the competition generated 127 million views and nearly one billion impressions, with EssenceMediacom boasting that Shell-branded content “actually outperformed Colin [Furze’s] own organic content benchmarks, achieving 59 percent more interactions than the norm for posts on Colin’s owned channels”.
EssenceMediacom, which belongs to multinational communications company WPP, has previously claimed to help clients “integrate sustainability into their advertising and marketing strategies”.
Environmental content creator Jacob Simon told DeSmog that, “Any agency with fossil fuel clients is on the wrong side of history. Agencies have a responsibility to use their talent and skills for good, to connect and make ads that benefit society and make the world a better place instead of harming us and contributing to global pollution and destruction.”
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YouTube also appears to have been a target for Shell. In December 2021, the popular motoring channel Seen Through Glass was paid to host a collaboration with Shell, during which its host Sam Fane was shown around Finali Mondiali, the World Finals of the Scuderia Ferrari Challenge Series. Seen Through Glass has 600,000 YouTube subscribers and was named as one of the Sunday Times’s top 50 UK influencers in 2019.
In 2021, Shell also sponsored GadgetsBoy – a consumer tech channel with 73,000 YouTube subscribers – to test the firm’s new e-scooter.
“These public messaging efforts form part and parcel of a broader greenwashing strategy of which the objective is to portray Shell as a global champion in the energy transition,” Gregory Trencher, an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, Kyoto University, told DeSmog.
“Yet this is far from the reality, as despite having a goal in place to reach net zero emissions, Shell has abandoned its plan to reduce its production of oil by 1-2 percent each year up to 2030 and has reaffirmed its plans to grow its gas production.”
A Shell spokesperson said that, “People are well aware that Shell produces the oil and gas they depend on today. However, what many don’t know is that we are also investing billions of dollars in low- and zero-carbon solutions globally as part of our efforts to support the energy transition.
“No energy transition can be successful if people are not aware of the alternatives available to them. Making our customers aware – through advertising or social media – of the low-carbon solutions we offer now or are developing is an important and valid part of our marketing activities.”
Fossil fuel companies have also relied on family lifestyle influencers to promote their products and improve their reputations.
In June 2019, oil and gas supermajor BP used Alex Galbally, a UK-based “dad influencer”, to promote its reward app, “BPme”.
Galbally, who boasts over 100,000 followers on Instagram, posed outside a petrol station along with four of his kids and told his followers that the BP app “really is gonna make my life!”.
Galbally deleted this post after being contacted for comment by DeSmog.
DeSmog also identified influencer campaigns promoting fossil fuel companies in other countries including India, Chile, Germany, and Indonesia. The total combined following of all the influencers who have posted fossil fuel partnerships since 2017, in posts analysed by DeSmog, is nearly 60 million.
These campaigns often took advantage of lax restrictions on the labelling of social media sponsorships. In the UK, influencers are required to clearly label when they have been paid to promote a brand – rules that are absent in many other countries.
In 2021, a number of Instagram influencers in India promoted a Shell advertising campaign, racking up millions of video views.
Few of the posts flagged that they were paid adverts (something that wasn’t required under Indian law until this year), though they all used a similar format and included Shell corporate hashtags.
One of the few labelled campaigns was from Indian actress Radhika Apte, who posted a paid video partnership with Shell on Instagram that received 3.6 million views.
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“I think that fossil fuel companies are very good at shape shifting to maintain their social licence,” environmental activist and influencer Francesca Willow told DeSmog. “They have smart people working there who have realised that social media is where they can focus their attention, or where they should focus their attention, because other strategies have started to fail them.”
Major polluters also appear to have used influencers to exaggerate the green credentials of their products. In Indonesia, Shell paid popular travel photographer Felgra Yogatama to promote its lubricant Shell Helix Ultra, which he described in an Instagram post as “The world’s first carbon neutral oil, made from natural gas,” claiming that it is used to “ensure high performance and low emissions”.
“The claim of ‘carbon neutral’ engine oil is ludicrous,” said Professor Trencher.
Yogatama, who is followed by over 400,000 people, confirmed to DeSmog that Shell had approached him “to do a project just like any other brand”, but this fact was neither stated in the body of the post nor in the label, giving the impression of an organic post.
“Greenwashing attempts have been rampant with the big oil and gas companies for a long time,” said Arild Wæraas, an Associate Professor at Oslomet Business School, who has studied corporate attempts to exaggerate their social and environmental work.
Ultimately, though, Wæraas doesn’t believe that social media campaigns will measurably shift public perceptions of big polluters. “I don’t think Shell and others will be able to improve their reputation much until they transition fully to producing green energy,” he said.
Meanwhile, environmental groups are determined to expose the tactics of fossil fuel giants and to persuade influencers not to work with them.
“We need to educate people more on what these companies are actually doing so that when you are approached as a creator, you don’t fall for it,” Tolmeia Gregory, associate creative director at Clean Creatives, told DeSmog.
This was echoed by James Turner, founder of the creative collective Glimpse. “The fossil fuel industry is using the glossy sheen of influencers to stop it looking like a creaking dinosaur,” he said. That’s why we need young creators of all stripes to avoid the likes of Shell and BP and use their talent to promote brands that are actually serious about climate change. This influencer stuff is just getting started, and we need to nip it in the bud while we still can.”
All the individuals and firms named in this article were approached for comment.
UK Influencers Who Have Featured In Social Media Campaigns Promoting Fossil Fuel Firms:
Robert Swan OBE
Dr Shini Somara
Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE
Seen Through Glass