The ad begins like any other expensive promotional video — vaguely upbeat elevator music plays as a man in a well-tailored suit beams at the camera. “Here at Exxon,” he begins, “we hate your children. And it’s making us rich.”
Not exactly a corporate puff piece.
As might be obvious, this YouTube piece isn’t made by a marketing firm on a multimillion dollar contract. It’s the work of a collaboration between The Other 98% and Oil Change International.
The Other 98% is going after the money. They hope to air the ad, which goes on to list ExxonMobil’s lengthy environmental and economic violations and highlights its significant funding they provide for political campaigns, on mainstream media outlets like MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN.
The targeting of a single company is a stark difference from the seemingly fruitless efforts of those activists seeking international government accountability for climate change. The United Nations climate change summit ended Saturday, and in spite of the impassioned pleas of environmental activists around the world, little substantial action was taken. This tireless advocacy did not budge the nations assembled into doing more than extending the Kyoto Protocol for another eight years. Many observers of the summit suggested that corporate interests played a role in the appalling blocking of major changes to global climate policy by nations like the United States and Canada. Negotiator Yeb Saño movingly contrasted the Doha Summit’s inaction on climate change with the massive typhoon hit the Philippines killing hundreds of people, asking only, “If not now, when?”
The Other 98% is not waiting for an answer to that question. Going after the moneymakers seems to be working: in three days they’ve already made it halfway to their funding goal, making it seem increasingly likely that casual news watchers will be hearing about just how much ExxonMobil wants their children to suffer.
This advertisement isn’t the first time an activist group has impersonated a corporate brand to halt profits and make a point. The Yes Men, activist performers Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, have been engaging in what they call “identity correction” since 2001, at the height of the international anti-globalization movement. They are best known for their impersonation of a Dow Chemical spokesperson apologizing for the 1984 Bhopal disaster, a gas leak at Union Carbide India Limited that exposed over 500,000 people to toxic methyl isocyanate gas. While Dow Chemical has never released a statement expressing culpability for the incident, in 2004 Dow Representative “Jude Finisterra” went on BBC World TV to express his sorrow for the victims of the tragedy. He promised that Dow would provide $12 billion to pay for medical care of the victims, clean up the site, and fund research into the hazards of other Dow products. Dow’s European stock slumped, dropping more than 4% in a matter of minutes.
Time and time again we have seen corporate behemoths go after the bottom line of profit, forsaking environmental justice in the process, but activists tend to hold individual governments as stakeholders to lobby. Is “identity correction” a viable way of promoting corporate accountability? As climate change becomes a graver danger for all nations, is activism that targets multinational interests in the private sector the greatest chance of success? The Other 98% seems to think so, and as Saño suggested this week, we might not have the time to find out if it’s not.