Cherrie Lynn Almonte is an influencer with 192,000 Instagram followers and a bio that includes the phrase “Travel | Lifestyle | Good vibes.” Her posts follow standard travel-influencer protocols, with perfectly framed photos of stunning vistas and cityscapes, lots of saturated colors, and geolocations for most shots as well as prominently tagged brands. An October 2020 post of Almonte’s fits this vibe perfectly with a vintage-style video of a trip to Joshua Tree. There’s dreamy warm-toned footage of Almonte, her ash-blonde hair visible under a big hat, wandering among cacti, and the dazzling sunset in the desert. There’s just one thing off. It’s all interspersed with shots of her and her fellow road tripper filling up at a Shell gas station.
The post was sponsored by Shell, which Almonte notes at the top of her caption, before launching into a list of things she learned from her trip. Point number one: “check your destination before you go,” she wrote. “Especially with the fires that are happening in California, we had to make sure it was safe for us to go to Joshua Tree.” In fall 2020, while Almonte was filming in Joshua Tree, California was in the midst of its biggest fire season in history, supercharged by the West’s devastating drought conditions and the heat of the climate crisis. Just a month prior to her Joshua Tree video, the trees themselves became the first species to be listed as endangered due to climate change.
Compared to some other brands, Big Oil has made relatively small forays into the world of Instagram marketing—but if history is any indication, they’re just getting started. Almonte’s post—with the accompanying whiplash of seeing a company partly responsible for the climate crisis sponsoring a trip to a place greatly endangered by climate change–could become the norm. History has shown that fossil fuel companies have mastered the art of quiet persuasion, and they’ll almost certainly join in the battle for our time and attention on social media.
Earther has found at least two oil and gas companies—Shell and Phillips 66—have launched campaigns with different types of Instagram influencers. Shell is the second-largest investor-owned source of historical carbon pollution on the planet. Phillips 66 doesn’t have quite that historic footprint, but a staggering 80% shareholders recently voted for the company to address its carbon emissions tied to users. Clearly both companies could use a little image boost in the public’s eyes.
Since at least 2018, Phillips 66 has worked with a handful of accounts as part of a campaign called “Live to the Full,” which, per the Phillips 66 Facebook page, the company calls “an anthology of middle America.” The accounts we were able to find posts from all appear to be clustered around St. Louis and Kansas City; all are parenting-focused accounts whose Phillips 66-sponsored posts tend to center around their kids. (A post from October by Liz Rotz, who describes herself as a “St. Louis Family Blogger,” is pretty standard fare: The image shows Rotz and her two kids snacking on pastries out of the back of her car, with the caption thanking Phillips 66 for sending them on the “ultimate adventure to eat out in St. Louis.”)
Shell, meanwhile, appears to have launched multiple different campaigns over the past few years with lots of different influencers in several different locations. We found several clustered under the hashtag “#ShellPartner,” which influencers use to tag their sponsored posts with the company. Many of the posts are pretty obviously ads; several are just influencers posing in front of a Shell gas pump. But some posts, like Almonte’s, are basically unrecognizable from other types of standard aspirational social media fare. Eileen Lazazzera, who goes by @yesmissy and has a beauty and wellness account with nearly 30,000 followers, posted a set of photos in 2019 posing with chocolate pretzel thins and water—no pumps or logos in sight—while giving props to Shell stations for providing “healthy snack options while on the go” in the caption.
Even for heavy Instagram users, the details behind these kinds of deals can be murky. Does the social media manager of Shell just slide into a bunch of influencers’ DMs hoping a few will bite? Brendan Gahan, the chief social officer at ad agency Mekanism, said that there’s no hard-and-fast rule for brokering an influencer-brand deal, but usually big brands like Shell and Phillips 66 will hire social agencies that will help them develop a strategy and then figure out influencers to work with.
“There’s a ton of tools you can use to cross-reference and get demographic and geographic data around an influencer’s audience,” he explained.
Gahan said a lot of brands are still trying to figure out how to best use Instagram; while more social-savvy brands are developing ongoing relationships with top influencers, he still sees a lot of “one-and-done” deals with brands dipping their toes into brokering deals with accounts of all sizes. But that looks poised to change very soon. When covid-19 closed production offices unexpectedly in 2020, it was “like gasoline on the fire” of Instagram marketing, Gahan said. A recent survey found that the number of sponsored posts by influencers for brands on Black Friday last year nearly doubled from the number in 2019.
Shell seems to recognize the power of celebrity more than any other fossil company. In 2019, the company tapped “Criminal Minds” actor Brent Bailey as a spokesperson (Bailey ran a social media campaign encouraging people to take a “#Shellfie,” which, ouch). A couple of years ago, Shell launched ads featuring Jennifer Hudson and other international stars covering Imagine Dragons and American Authors’ songs to promote its #makethefuture campaign. While Instagram influencers may not have the traditional star power of a singer or actor, Gahan said the medium can still be extremely powerful.
“With a digital ad, you’re lucky if people watch 3 seconds,” Gahan said. “People just keep scrolling. But influencers—people will stop, and they’ll watch a full 15-, 20-minute vlog of their favorite creator, all the way through, and they’ll listen to every single word. You can actually communicate some stuff with real depth.”
Recently, Shell seems to have branched off from using Instagram to promote road trips and gas station stops, and into what the company claims it’s doing to save the environment. As part of a new campaign called “Drive Carbon Neutral,” several influencers have recently created outdoors-centric posts to promote how Shell is selling options for customers to choose to add a small price to their gas at the pump, which the company then uses to purchase carbon offsets.
“Thanks to Shell, there’s a way to explore nature and reduce our carbon footprint at the same time,” Erik McRitchie, a photographer from Alberta with more than 74,000 followers, narrates over a reel of kids playing in the snow and shots of beautiful mountains.
Earther emailed more than a dozen influencers who worked on the Phillips 66 or Shell campaigns described in this article. Most did not respond; the few who did get back to us declined to talk about the partnership. (One said they sign NDAs with the companies they work for, presumably including Phillips 66, while another said they weren’t comfortable disclosing details because they’d “hate to ruin” their relationship with a partner.)
Doing a sponsored post for a company with a dirty reputation can have serious consequences for rising social stars’ careers. One Instagram influencer that partnered with Shell and agreed to speak to Earther on the condition of anonymity, said they “didn’t expect” the negative comments from their followers. “The negative backlash I received will definitely shape how I choose to do partnerships in the future,” they said. But there are always more influencers.
Oil companies working with influencers is actually part of a tradition they helped create decades ago. A lot of the way modern advertising works—including Instagram—is thanks to the work of brands like Shell and Exxon.
“The oil industry has been essential to the invention and perfection of propaganda techniques for 100 years,” said Geoffrey Supran, a researcher at the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and director of Climate Accountability Communication at the Climate Social Science Network at Brown University. “Since the very beginning, they’ve been using advertising in various ways, especially since the rise of environmentalism and then climate change from the 1970s through the 1990s.”
The genesis of many of Big Oil’s modern propaganda techniques can be traced back to the 1970s oil crisis. Herb Schmertz, ExxonMobil’s head of public relations in the 1970s and 1980s who guided the company through the crisis, is recognized by much of the advertising industry as a pioneer in the business. He elevated the company from just something that sells a product to a cultural and political force. Schmertz invented many advertising techniques that are still used today, like brands sponsoring cultural programming (under his leadership, Exxon underwrote several seasons of PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre” program) and creating what he called “advertorials,” or what’s commonly referred to today as “paid media”–ads in newspapers and on websites that look like traditional articles. Much of Schmertz’s work helped set Exxon up to successfully wage its decades-long PR battle against climate science, planting the seeds for Big Oil to influence politicians and the public into not paying attention to what its product was doing.
A central idea of Schmertz’s was to bypass traditional gatekeepers, like journalists and analysts, to reach consumers directly. The goal wasn’t necessarily to sell them a specific product, but to establish positive associations with the company itself as an entity, which could help head off PR crises or problems in the future (like, say, the fact that a company is actively helping burn down the planet). Supran said Schmertz particularly recognized the power of celebrities, politicians, religious leaders, and educators to sway opinions about a company through what he called a “ripple effect,” like throwing a stone into a pond. In Schmertz’s era, the power of the New York Times op-ed page or an episode of a prestigious TV show could be the most effective way of changing opinion.
Were Schmertz alive and in charge of Exxon’s ad department today, he may have seen the value in getting a post from a user’s favorite Instagram influencer to create that ripple. Oil companies “have gone digital, and they’ve gone more subtle, but there’s no denying the fact that these messages are not simple product advertising,” Supran said. “These are the modern manifestations of the PR techniques Big Oil helped create.”
I wanted to get a sense of what a modern-day Schmertz might dream up for Exxon (or Shell, or Phillips 66) today. So, I asked Gahan how he would advise an oil and gas company looking for a social campaign, particularly as public opinion—especially from social native generations Gen Z and millennials—turns increasingly toward climate action. Gahan said he’d hammer home on the good the company says it’s doing to bond with its audience.
“My gut would be, they’re probably going to lean into the [corporate social responsibility]-focused stuff as a way in to generate some goodwill, versus being like, ‘we’ve got great gas!’” he said. “These conglomerates, they’re almost so polished, there’s no humanity there. I think they could benefit from humanity, even if some of it’s pointing out their flaws.”
Gahan’s on the money here. Big Oil has already started trying to sell itself as part of the climate solution, though their own climate plans along with volumes of research show they’re anything but. Many are rebranding themselves as “energy companies” to avoid dirty labels, even as they continue to expand fossil fuel production and exploration. Last week, Shell’s CEO penned a LinkedIn blog responding to a Dutch court’s historic ruling that the company needs to cut emissions 45% by 2030.
“We all know we must urgently tackle climate change and achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement for countries to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Ben van Beurden, the CEO wrote, after questioning whether or not it was fair for a court to single out his company and partially blaming consumer demand for Shell’s continued production of oil. “The court ruling has not changed the fact that Shell is more determined than ever to play its part and lead in this global challenge.”
It’s clear that the social strategy on Instagram and beyond for oil and gas companies has turned to talking up their role in the coming energy revolution. Meanwhile, they’re hiding the dirty work they plan on continuing to do in opaque reports.
“There’s a social media loophole the size of an oil tanker in terms of how the fossil fuel industry gets away with brazen political advertising, hidden behind the veil of corporate green talk,” said Supran.
Even if regulators figure out a way to crack down on online greenwashing, the industry is not likely to stop. Rather, it seems, they’re just getting started. In December, Mother Jones reported that the natural gas lobby was paying Instagram influencers to promote gas stoves in response to the increasing wave of legislation banning natural gas hookups across the country. Supran pointed out that studies have shown that negative media attention is one of the key indicators of oil and gas advertising. In May, Big Oil suffered a three-tier punch: On the same day Shell got handed its court ruling, both Exxon and Chevron suffered climate-related shareholder revolts at their annual meetings. Given the international headlines about Big Oil’s “bad week,” it’s reasonable to expect a fresh wave of PR in the aftermath.
“I feel as though we’re going to see a doubling down on efforts to protect social, political, and legal legitimacy,” said Supran.
And even if advertising directly to dubious consumers becomes increasingly tricky, turning to influencers could be an incredibly effective way to get Big Oil’s messages across.
“A great influencer campaign, it’s shocking the outcomes you can generate,” said Gahan. “I’ve worked campaigns where we’ve crashed websites, had so many fans show up we’ve had to shut things down. It’s really surprising what they can do. I think people generally underestimate the impact that they have.”