Greenwashing for Big Oil? There’s an award for that
Lennox Yearwood Jr., right, presents an award at the F-List awards ceremony hosted by Rollie Williams, left. Clean Creatives

Winning awards is usually considered a good thing. There are, however, various tongue-in-cheek honors that are more about mocking their recipients than celebrating their work. There’s the Darwin Awards for those who found creative ways to die, the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award, and a new addition to this genre of prizes: The F-List Awards.

The brainchild of Clean Creatives, a group working to expose how PR companies are contributing to the climate crisis, the awards recognize the “most egregious campaigns on behalf of fossil fuel companies.” In a virtual ceremony last week, hosted by the comedian and YouTube star Rollie Williams, seasoned climate activists such as Bill McKibben and Lennox Yearwood Jr. announced the winners of categories such as “Lifetime Achievement in Shortening Lifetimes” and “Most Impressive Cognitive Dissonance.”

In his opening monologue, wearing a blue blazer and a bolo tie, Williams explained that advertisements can be a “powerful force” for good or ill: They have warned people of the dangers of drunk driving and also helped turn weddings into celebrations of consumerism. “In times of crisis,” Williams said, “advertisers and their clients have always had a decision to make: whether to see their influence as a responsibility, or to close their eyes, take their hands off the wheel, hit the gas, and just say, ‘We’re doing our jobs.’”

Over the last few years, climate advocates have begun to call more attention to a kind of deceptive marketing, called “greenwashing,” that suggests companies are more environmentally responsible than they are, and have filed lawsuits against oil companies for misleading advertising. Activists have called for a ban on fossil fuel advertising, akin to the 1971 ban on tobacco ads. Dozens of ad agencies have signed the pledge from Clean Creatives to decline contracts with fossil fuel companies. If the trend continues, the thinking goes, oil and gas companies could become so stigmatized that no advertiser would take on their work.

The first sardonic honor at the F-List Awards, “Environmental Impact of the Year,” went to Hill+Knowlton Strategies for its work with the Oil & Gas Climate Initiative, a group of 12 oil company CEOs including Bernard Looney of BP and Amin Nasser of Saudi Aramco. Then, the agency BBDO was recognized for “Excellence in Science Fiction” for its ads about ExxonMobil’s algae biofuel initiative, which portray the company as a clean energy pioneer. (For the record, Exxon has spent at least $200 million more on corporate advertising than its algae project since 2009.) None of the firms, of course, were present to receive accolades.

Next, McKibben (who is a member of Grist’s board) opened his “virtual envelope” to present the “Most Impressive Cognitive Dissonance.” It went to Iris Worldwide, an agency that has advertised for both the oil company Shell and COP26, last year’s international climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. “That’s exciting for them, to have gotten to represent both the people trying to solve this problem and the people who are creating this problem,” McKibben quipped. “If there’s anything I know about ad agencies, it’s that they love prizes and awards of all kinds.”

For years, agencies have been rewarded for helping oil and gas companies improve their image. In 2007, a few years before BP’s offshore oil rig exploded, spilling more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the firm Ogilvy & Mather won an Effie advertising award for “sustained success” in its long-running campaign to rebrand the company formerly known as British Petroleum as “Beyond Petroleum.”

In more recent years, trade associations haven’t been handing out as many prizes to oil and gas campaigns, said Duncan Meisel, the campaign director for Clean Creatives. But, simply because of the sheer number of award shows out there, there are still some campaigns getting recognition at the Reggie Awards or Stevie Awards, for instance. In 2020 the lower-case advertising agency mcgarrybowen and media agency Wavemaker were finalists at the Effies for their commercials for Chevron. As the summary for the award explains, “The energy industry was losing trust, leading to increased scrutiny … To reclaim progress, we celebrated the DOERS who make things happen and how the energy Chevron provides helps them get things done.”

Melissa Aronczyk, a media studies professor at Rutgers who recently co-wrote a book on public relations and environmentalism, said that awards ceremonies are so prevalent in the advertising world because they do double duty, putting the spotlight on agencies’ work and giving more publicity to their clients at the same time. “I see awards programs as one tactic companies use to appear socially responsible,” Aroncyzk said. “All of it is about looking good and of course continuing to ‘do well’ financially without necessarily ‘doing good.’”

Last month, two House Democrats sent a letter to six groups that give out PR awards, asking for details on their work recognizing firms for their campaigns on behalf of oil, gas, and coal companies. Representatives Katie Porter of California and Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona wrote that they were trying to understand how the industry and PR firms were attempting “to influence public opinion and policymaking in ways that prevent the United States from addressing the climate crisis.”

This concern was echoed at the F-List Awards by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island. “It’s time for accountability,” Whitehouse said. “Public relations firms that partner with fossil fuel companies are neither socially responsible nor climate-conscious. Instead, they’re holding back progress at a critical moment for our country.”

In the remainder of the hour-long ceremony, Yearwood announced that the T Brand Studio, a custom content studio for the New York Times, was winning an award for having their ads for Exxon featured at a congressional hearing on climate misinformation last fall. Another victor was the world’s largest PR firm, Edelman, recipient of the “Lifetime Achievement in Shortening Lifetimes.”

A running theme of the ceremony was that a mark of “good” advertising is not simply running an effective campaign, but also a morally responsible one. McKibben observed that people are starting to “feel a little bit of the shame they should feel” for advertising for fossil fuel companies.

“If you’re in this industry, you completely depend on the constant influx of smart young people coming to help you,” he said. “And you know what? Smart young people are looking around and saying, ‘You know, spending my life playing pretend on behalf of big oil companies is really not what I had in mind.’”



Kate Yoder
Kate Yoder

Word nerd at Grist. Writing from Seattle about climate, culture, language, history, and our weird brains.