It looks like Big Oil may have just pulled a slick one.
In a perfectly timed display of saber rattling, Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE:XOM) squashed efforts by an environmental group to air a controversial TV commercial during last week’s State of the Union address. On the same day of the address, Universal McCann, the media agency that represents the oil giant, sent a cease-and-desist letter demanding that Comcast Corp. (NASDAQ:CMCSA) yank a 30-second spot called “Exxon Hates Your Children,” which was scheduled to air on the Fox News Channel in Houston.
The satirical spot was produced by the nonprofit Oil Change International (OCI), along with the activist groups The Other 98% and Environmental Action. It features -- as evidenced from the title -- searing commentary about Exxon’s fossil-fuel-dependent business model, which OCI said is selling out our children’s future. In the commercial, an actor in a business suit playing an ExxonMobil exec claims that Congress gives the fossil fuel industry more than $10 billion dollars in subsidies every year. “That’s your tax dollars lining our pockets, making a fortune destroying your kids’ future,” the fake exec says. “At Exxon, that’s what we call good business.”
The cease-and-desist letter was sent by Scott Suky, a senior vice president at Universal McCann, to Dan Sinagoga, vice president of political advertising at Comcast’s advertising division, Comcast Spotlight. The letter was forwarded to IBTimes by David Turnbull, OCI’s campaigns director.
“‘ExxonMobil Hates Your Children’ is false and unsubstantiated,” the letter states. “ExxonMobil fully expects the spots in question to be pulled down immediately and for written confirmation via email be provided immediately forthwith. Further, any delay in executing this cease & desist will be viewed as willful defamation and slander of the Exxon Mobil Corporation and will result in aggressive action.”
Although the commercial had previously aired on MSNBC in New York, Washington and Denver, Comcast quickly complied with ExxonMobil’s demands to pull the spot from Fox News before it aired during President Obama’s State of the Union address. In a phone interview, Turnbull said he believes the timing of the cease-and-desist threat was intentional.
“I think their strategy was clear,” he said. “The spot ran on other Comcast networks, and they never said anything. They waited until the moment in time when it could have the most impact -- the State of the Union. Comcast had no time to deal with it properly.”
Chris Ellis, senior director of communications for Comcast Spotlight, said the cable giant has no objection to airing commercials that represent “a wide range of viewpoints on numerous issues.” He insisted that cease-and-desist requests are fairly routine but said that each request has to be looked at individually. “When we receive such a request,” he added, “we review the spot in light of the new information provided to us by the entity making the request and determine on a case-by-case basis whether or not we will continue running the advertisement.”
ExxonMobil is the world’s largest company by revenue, and one of the country’s largest advertisers.
In a statement emailed to IBTimes, Kimberly Brasington, ExxonMobil’s media relations advisor, called the commercial in question “offensive” and “nonsensical.” “[The advertisement] fails to meet any basic standard of accuracy, so we requested that the broadcast network reconsider airing it,” she said.
Turnbull disagrees with Brasington’s critical assessment. He said government subsidies to oil companies are well documented. Indeed, debates in Congress over such tax breaks have been raging for years.
In the meantime, ExxonMobil’s efforts have not silenced the “Exxon Hates Your Children” campaign. Turnbull said he believes the commercial is on “solid legal footing,” and he is continuing to seek out networks that will air it. With the help of The Other 98%, a petition demanding that the commercial be allowed on the air has amassed 26,000 signatures in less than a week, Turnbull said.
And then there’s YouTube, where the commercial has been viewed more than 238,000 times. Not as many as the 3.6 million who tuned into Fox News for the State of the Union, but it’s a start.