Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Climate Change Activists Go Toe-to-Toe With Exxon Over Crowdfunded TV Ad

BY Julia Wetherell | Thursday, February 21 2013

Screengrab from the Exxon Hates Your Children ad.

Hoping to capitalize on the attention around President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, a group of advocacy organizations used a crowdfunding platform to raise enough money to put a provocative ad about climate change in front of Comcast subscribers that night. Targeted against petroleum giant Exxon-Mobil, the 30-second spot never ran — Exxon requested that Comcast not air the ad, and Comcast complied.

The ad's sponsors hoped that crowdfunding could help them place their message on national television, turning a space usually reserved for selling cars and lingerie into a marketplace of ideas. The controversy generated some press for the ad, but it was boxed out of a key market at a key time — leaving questions about crowdfunding's impact for activism.

The spot, called "Exxon Hates Your Children," says what one might expect to hear from an ad with that name. It had already run successfully in New York, Denver, and Washington, D.C. For the State of the Union, the ad's sponsors wanted to run the spot in Houston, home base for Exxon-Mobil's upstream operations.

It appears this touched a nerve. Exxon-Mobil contacted Comcast operators just a few hours before the speech.

“[The campaign] is offensive, nonsensical and fails to meet any basic standard of accuracy, so we requested that the broadcast network reconsider airing it,”  said an Exxon Mobil representative, Kimberly Brasington.

Jointly sponsored by a coalition of activist groups, the spot is a dark parody reminiscent of the public-service-announcement-style pieces oil companies have run in recent years to make the case for their own environmental consciousness.

"Here at Exxon," says a man in a business suit, "we hate your children. We all know the climate crisis will rip their world apart. But we don't care, because it's making us rich."

If this sounds like unconventional fare in time usually left for car commercials, that’s exactly what Colin Mutchler wants you to think. Mutchler is the co-founder of Louder, the crowdfunding advertising platform that was known as Loudsauce when techPresident profiled it in November 2010.  The campaign’s organizers used Louder to raise more than $14,000 towards media buys on national television. 

“These companies spend millions of dollars to create a narrative about their corporate brand,” Mutchler told techPresident in a recent interview. “[Those narratives are] in our face as a culture. And yet the culture doesn’t have a lot of rights around how we interpret it and share it among ourselves.”

A pot-stirring message like this might normally have a dedicated, if limited audience, in an online campaign or on YouTube. With Louder, it can gain exposure on a much wider scale. 

“You can reach beyond your own tribe,” says Mutchler.

Intended to air before and after a second-term State of the Union in which the President was sure to address climate change, the groups behind Exxon Hates Your Children hoped to do just that. 

“Our lawyers told us that it was an airable ad, that it fit within parameters of relevant laws,” said David Turnbull, campaigns director at Oil Change International.   They knew that Exxon was aware of the ad well before the State of the Union, he said.

“We had been carefully checking to make sure that we weren’t receiving any communications,” he added.

Yet the cease-and-desist letter was sent only a few hours before the speech, with the decision to air the ad left in Comcast's hands. Chris Ellis, Senior Director of Communications at Comcast Spotlight, the company's advertising sales division, said in a statement to techPresident that cease and desist requests are "fairly routine."

“When we receive such a request, we review the spot in light of the new information provided to us by the entity making the request and determine on a case-by-case basis whether or not we will continue running the advertisement,” Ellis continued in the statement.

Turnbull thinks the fact that the ad was pulled was partially a matter of timing.

“Comcast didn’t have a lot of time to review the situation,” he says.  But it also didn’t come as a surprise. 

“We know Exxon plays hardball," he said. "It’s not entirely shocking that they’re coming after us.” 

Small advertisers often need help negotiating a media landscape dominated by corporate interests, Mutchler says, but the best thing Louder can do for its clients is to warn them what that kind of "hardball" might look like. Though Louder’s approach deliberately obtains “bought media,” to put out unconventional messages through traditional advertising channels, Mutchler says that buzz around a controversial campaign – the “earned media” – is just as important. 

This has been the case for the Exxon ad, which has gained exposure both in TV airings and the fallout from the cease and desist. According to YouTube statistics, its view count has increased dramatically in the days since the State of the Union address.

Mutchler says this is the impact of obtaining bought media for small campaigns, "even though the scale is not massive, even if it gets rejected."

David Turnbull agrees.

“If this situation can help ensure that more people see this ad, that’s a good thing," he said. "The ultimate goal is trying the end subsidies to Exxon and other fossil fuel companies.”

This article has been amended to fix a broken link.

News Briefs

RSS Feed thursday >

Civic Hackers Call on de Blasio to Fill Technology Vacancies

New York City technology advocates on Wednesday called on the de Blasio administration to fill vacancies in top technology policy positions, expressing some frustration at the lack of a leadership team to implement a cohesive technology strategy for the city. GO

China's Porn Purge Has Only Just Begun, And Already Sina Is Stripped of Publication License

It seems that China is taking spring cleaning pretty seriously. On April 13 they launched their most recent online purge, “Cleaning the Web 2014,” which will run until November. The goal is to rid China's Internet of pornographic text, pictures, video, and ads in order to “create a healthy cyberspace.” More than 100 websites and thousands of social media accounts have already been closed, after less than a month. Today the official Xinhua news agency reported that the authorities have stripped the Internet giant Sina (of Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging site) of its online publication license. This crackdown on porn comes on the heels of a crackdown on “rumors.” Clearly, this spring cleaning isn't about pornography, it's about censorship and control.


wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.


tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.