You may have seen an unusual ad recently. It begins with an eerie, night-time shot of a house, then shows a woman in a dark kitchen heating a kettle over a gas flame.
“Home: the one place you’re supposed to be safe,” a narrator says. “But what if the danger is coming from inside the house?”
Styled to resemble a trailer for a horror movie, the video is part of a new,Halloween-themed climate advocacy campaign making the rounds on social media and in movie theaters across the US.
“We’re finding new ways to reach an audience who are concerned about the climate and their health, and who we think need to be exposed to the way gas is harming them,” said James Hadgis, executive director of Gas Leaks, the advocacy group behind the videos.
⚠️ Learn the terrifying truth about the ‘natural’ gas, the #MethaneMonster, silently threatening your family’s health at https://t.co/9jzZbGEW3H #MethaneLeaks #MakeTheSwitch pic.twitter.com/jhHt70CDx2
— GasLeaksAction (@GasLeaksAction) August 1, 2023
Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more planet-heating than carbon dioxide in the short term. Research shows that the climate contributions of methane have been routinely underestimated and that the fuel has been linked to asthma and other health problems.
But fossil fuel ads have long claimed that gas is “clean” – a label that regulators have deemed false advertising.
“There’s a lot of messaging from the industry that we need to fight,” said Hadgis.
The new ads from Gas Leaks, which launched last year, paint a darker picture of the fuel source, pointing out the risks it poses for the climate and publichealth.
They come as part of a broader push from the climate movement to counter fossil fuel industry messaging. This fall, the non-profit media organization Fossil Free Media also unveiled a series of billboards calling out oil and gas companies for their role in fueling climate disasters, which featured maps of broken temperature records and read: “Brought to you by Big Oil.” The Hollywood director Adam McKay also released a viral spoof of a Chevron ad last September and subsequently launched the non-profit Yellow Dot Studios to produce similar content.
It’s time to break up with Big Oil. pic.twitter.com/ytTn9oJpN9
— Yellow Dot Studios (@weareyellowdot) September 6, 2023
McKay said humor can be a powerful toolfor climate advocacy.
“Actual laughter is a truth detector,” he said. “You will never see an Exxon ad that makes you laugh because deep down inside we already know the truth that they are killing us all every day.”
Activists have spoofed fossil fuel industry ads before. In 2010, political pranksters the Yes Men teamed up with environmental organizations Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch to mimic Chevron ads.
But in recent years, researchers, journalists and elected officials have uncovered mountains of new evidence that fossil fuel ads are deliberatelymisleading, often taking cues from the tobacco industry.
“Over the last decade, it has become clear that greenwashing is one of the greatest barriers to climate progress,” said Jamie Henn, founder of Fossil Free Media, who also sits on Gas Leaks’ board. “Much of what’s held back climate progress isn’t just politics, but is also propaganda and communications.”
The focus on counter-messaging comes as fossil fuel ads are under increasing scrutiny, including in a growing number of lawsuits. Organizers, including those with Fossil Free Media’s Clean Creatives campaign, are also pushing public relations, advertising, and marketing firms to stop working with fossil fuel clients.
“There’s this increasing realization that when the fossil fuel industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on marketing and public relations, is doing it for a reason: because it works,” said Geoffrey Supran, a University of Miami associate professor who studies fossil fuel industry messaging, particularly in advertising.
Hazel Thayer, a social media influencer who focuses on climate, said parody is a natural response to oil and gas ads.
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“Once you think about them for 30 seconds, they’re kind of hilarious,” said Thayer, who has partnered with Gas Leaks to create satirical fossil fuel ads. “They’re trying to make this dirty, poisonous thing that’s ruining the planet seem warm and fuzzy.”
Still, attempting to fight messaging from an industry with such widespread influence and spending power is not easy, said Henn.
He noted that reporting, including from the Drilled podcast, has found that oil companies were pioneers in the public relations industry and that fossil fuel firms’ advertising budgets dwarf environmental organizations’.
“The industry is a big corporate influence destroying the world, so in some ways, they have a harder narrative to push and they’re going to need to spend more money to do that,” he said. “But we have to be strategic.”
To ensure it used its limited resources wisely, Gas Leaks focused on placing its anti-gas Halloween ads in states with high numbers of gas stoves, high rates of childhood asthma attributed to gas stove use, and active fights against gas pipelines, leaks and explosions. And it’s also aiming to create compelling stories, said Hadgis.
“We can’t win people over with facts alone,” he said.
Christine Arena, a former public relations executive at the firm Edelman, said a diversity of narrative techniques can help advocates reach a wider audience.
“It is essential that we use every emotional lever in our creative communications arsenal, from humor and wit to rage, grief, compassion, hope, love and courage, to remind people of the stakes and bring them along,” said Arena, whose social impact production company Generous Films partnered with Fossil Free Media to make a climate advocacy ad aimed at parents.
Shifting the narrative alone won’t solve the climate crisis, Hadgis admitted. But there is evidence that fossil fuel messaging has had real effect.
The Yale professor Justin Farrell has found that industry messaging measurably increased American polarization around climate issues. And in the early 1980s, energy giant Mobil conducted an internal review of its advertorials and found they shifted the nation’s “collective unconscious” – or public opinion – favorably towardthe company, Supran’s research found.
Supran applauded Gas Leaks and other climate organizations for trying to fight that messaging with wit.
“I think the climate movement is waking up to the need for an edgier message,” he said. “It’s saying, instead of just showing dying polar bears, maybe we can communicate a savviness that we’ve been missing.”