Inside American Petroleum Institute’s Commercial Shoot
Does the nation’s most powerful lobby have to deceive to advertise?
Our experience suggests that it does
Tens of millions of dollars of advertising and marketing materials have been aimed at Americans from the oil industry over the last five years. And, if an article in Advertising Age is any indication, there will be tens of millions of dollars more next year.
The launch of API’s Energy Citizens campaign was controversial from the start, after an internal launch memo went public, detailing how oil companies should recruit employees to attend rallies organized by oil industry lobbyists. And, there has been criticism of the truthfulness of that advertising, particularly the claim that 9.2 million Americans are employed as a result of the industry’s economic activity.
But our direct experience in an up-close look at how this advertisement was made seems to further question the credibility of this advertising.
The casting call was clear on its desire to have people express their personal views:
“We are writing to you because we need all ages and races to express their views in a Commercial Spot on American Made Energy!”
“…You are willing to go on camera and state your beliefs.”
“…You are comfortable portraying YOURSELF! They want REAL PEOPLE not Actors!”
As the Deputy Director of the Checks and Balances Project, a government and industry watchdog group, I saw this as a rare opportunity to see how a large lobbying interest creates public-facing materials.
My personal experience showed a far different process than participants had been led to believe, and than the advertisements will portray when they air. Not only were attendees given strictly worded lines to repeat, but any deviation from the lines brought a prompt dismissal from the set. I was told to leave by the producer after adding the words “clean energy” to the following line: “For American [Clean Energy] Jobs,” because I was not sticking to “the script.”
When I said I had never been told about a script, and I referenced language in the casting call email about expressing “your beliefs,” I was only informed then that my beliefs had to be the oil industry’s views.
API, and its advertising and its PR firm, Edelman, staffed the video shoot with at least 20 staffers, by my count. They controlled everything about the shoot, from participants’ wardrobe, to makeup, to the lines they could use. Though I’m sure that this will trigger a blame-the-videographer response, I find it hard to believe that the script was not vetted and approved at least by Edelman, if not the American Petroleum Institute as well.
Sequence of Events
Afternoon: Checks and Balances Project receives a casting email asking for “all ages and races to express their views.” (See the full email here (.pdf))
Evening: I email the Casting Director using my normal email address for the commercial shoot.
8:30 AM: I confirm a time slot for 10:30 AM to be part of the commercial.
10:15 AM: I arrive at the Bella Faccia studio. My experience showed very expensive production capacity with at least 20 observable staff and employees present of API, Edelman and production studio staff.
10:30 AM: I am asked to sign a release form (.pdf), allowing API to use all footage for this commercial and future commercial pieces.
11:00 AM: I am sent between makeup and wardrobe departments and have my suit steamed.
11:15 AM: I am asked to appear in front of API and Edelman staff for a casting call vetting. After saying they liked me in a suit because I have “a nice, young professional’s look,” Edelman executive Robert McKernan, says that after using me, they were probably done filming people in suits and there was a need for some to have a casual look.
11:30 AM: I notice an Edelman Blue badge sitting on the outside of a bag in the waiting area with contact information for Nancy B. Wright, Senior Vice President of Edelman Blue.
11:45 AM: The two other individuals being filmed for the commercial right before me left the building with Ms. Wright. I heard them joking about getting drinks later that evening “on the company tab.” It appeared to me that these “average Americans” who might appear in these commercials were Edelman PR employees, though I have no way of confirming that.
12:00 PM: It is my turn on set. I was escorted to the sound stage and asked to repeat the following lines: “I vote,” “for American jobs,” and “like oil and natural gas.” A transcript and voice recording of my time on the set and discussion with one of the coordinators is below.
12:05 PM: Instead of repeating pre-scripted lines, my time on the set is transcripted below:
Matt: Smile – “I vote.”
GE: “I vote.”
Matt: Settle – Looking right at the camera – “I vote”
GE: “I vote.”
Matt: “I vote!”
GE: “I vote!”
Matt: And smile – “For American Jobs.”
GE: For American Clean Energy Jobs
Matt: Just, “For American Jobs.”
GE: For American Clean Energy Jobs
Matt: Just American Jobs, For, “For American Jobs.”
GE: I’d like to add that though.
Matt: Just deliver the line. That we have. Just, because, just cut for a second. Are you…I want to make sure that you are okay with what we are doing as far as the script goes.
GE: Well I didn’t see the script. I was told that I was going to be able to deliver my views on camera. That’s what the casting email said.
Matt: The casting email?
GE: Yeah, I got an email about this casting and I was told that I was going to be able to state my views on camera.
Matt: That’s not what we’re doing. The message we are delivering is a script that was written by the agency. So what we are doing is delivering a message about voting for energy, new energy resources, natural gas and oil. So if you don’t feel comfortable…
Producer: We can move on.
GE: I’m just wondering who wrote the script. I didn’t even see the script until you starting saying it. Is there someone I can talk to?
Matt: Yeah absolutely.
Listen to the conversation here.
12:10 PM: I have a short conversation with the producer, who tells me that “it’s not a human interest story… It’s a piece…about energy with a certain point of view.” She is then called into the other room by API and Edelman staff. I then left the film studio.
GE: Do you know who I could talk to?
Producer: What’s going on?
GE: I was just wondering who I could talk to about the script? Because I, I didn’t know about the, there being lines already written, I was under the assumption that we were going to…
Producer: Can we have our conversations in another room? What did you think?
GE: Well the assumption I had based on casting email, was that I was going to be able to state my views.
Producer: Oh no, its, its oh no sorry. That’s okay, your views are your views, we, just they’re not appropriate for this piece. That’s fine.
GE: Well I mean…
Producer: It’s not a human-interest story. It’s a piece, being, being …
GE: About energy?
Producer: Yeah, about energy with a specific point of view. And so if its not your point of view its fine. We just don’t…
GE: Well I think I agree with the 67% of republicans and 80% of independents that want to end welfare for fossil fuel companies.
Producer: I, I’m I’m staying completely neutral. If you think everyone in that room is thinking one way…
GE: I don’t at all. You know, I’m just wondering, I was under the assumption that this is like an energy citizens campaign, that’s what it said in the email and that I would state my views on energy. It sounds like its not. I mean, the American Petroleum Institute, did they write the script?
Producer: The petroleum institute? No.
GE: No? I thought that’s what API is.
Producer: They didn’t write the script, I mean it was written for… so, what they typically do is they poll a lot of their constituents and people tell what they feel and then they take an amalgam of people’s statements, and we can’t get all those people in here. So we create sort of recreate the spirit of what these people have said.
Listen to the conversation with the producer.