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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.