Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Remember, corporations are adept at deflection campaigns

This week has been heartening as corporations and people come together to try to pull us through the national disaster caused by Covid-19 and the resultant 21-day lockdown. Billions of rands have been donated. If you for a moment forget how people accumulate wealth, often at the cost of their workers and society, then this is a hopeful moment, illustrating how South Africans can help each other.

All this goodwill had me feeling downright positive.

Then I read some research from 2011 by the University of Brighton’s Julie Doyle, titled “Where has all the oil gone? BP branding and the discursive elimination of climate change risk”.

Oil and gas companies have, for a century, run sophisticated public relations campaigns to distance themselves from the effects of their products, which range from children living near refineries growing up with crippling asthma to the deadly heating of our planet.

Public relations, in turn, owes its origins to a campaign to rehabilitate the image of John D Rockefeller, after his mining company murdered striking workers and their families.

Doyle’s research focused on the more than $100-million media campaign that BP ran in 2005, talking about the “personal carbon footprint”.

In one advert, the company said: “What on Earth is a carbon footprint? Everyone in the world has one. It’s the amount of carbon dioxide emitted each year due to the energy we use. Calculate the size of the household footprint, learn how you can reduce it and how we’re reducing yours …”

That seems like a reasonable advert. Almost nice. A corporation informing and empowering people.

It is genius. BP, like other major carbon polluters, has run orchestrated campaigns that want to pin the problem of emissions on people. And yes, everyone is responsible for their effect on the planet and, if they have the resources to do so, should reduce that impact.

Living beyond your means affects other people, much in the same way that people who have the space to isolate but choose to go out during the lockdown harm other people.

But what the oil giant was actually doing is known in the climate science community as a “deflection campaign”. If individual action is seen as the key to the climate crisis, corporations aren’t the focus of regulators, activists and people who worry about their future. And it’s not just oil and gas companies doing this sort of thing; big companies that take shortcuts and pollute are expert at deflecting the attention (and corrupting officials and regulators). 

So, in this moment where those corporations are “stepping up” to the Covid-19 challenge, let’s not forget their true character and where and how they have made their money.

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Bloated Sassa to make staff cuts

The social security agency has ‘lost’ R2-billion on unnecessary salaries and through wasteful expenditure

SANDF’s ‘dignity’ comes with a R200mn price tag

Find out about the SANDF’s new uniform, which is costing taxpayers close to R200-million, while mission-critical equipment is not maintained

More top stories

Young people call for an end to the terrible legacy...

‘The generation of 1976 did not fight to end the injustices of their time only for there to be the dawn of a climate apartheid’

Honey laundering: Transcontinental scheme puts fake honey into our supermarkets

South African beekeepers compete with cheap honey imports while still using ethical, bee-friendly practices

Gen Z: A joyful life in a damaged society

The moral dilemma of privilege has led to nihilism as well as unprecedented social justice action

Lipstick, blush and Boko Haram: Meet the make-up artists of...

Despite the insurgency, which has killed many people, caused the displacement of millions, confines women to traditional roles and forbids the education of girls, women are fending for their families and starting lucrative businesses. Meet the make-up artists of Maiduguri

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…