Opinion: Beale on ... Esso

Sometimes, with the best advertising will in the world, events gang up against you. So this week, a litre of petrol nudges £1 and depot blockades are mooted just as Esso is trying to persuade us it's got a warm and caring heart.

Mind you, the odds were stacked against Esso from the start. Look for Esso on Google UK and the first item up is not the glossy corporate website but an impassioned attack on all that the world's second biggest oil firm stands for.

StopEsso.com (or Edollars dollars O as the logo goes) is an impassioned attempt to ... well, stop Esso and is neatly followed in the Google listings by peopleandplanet.org (getting students to stop Esso), a site detailing Oxford University students stopping Esso, sites cheering Greenpeace stopping Esso, the intriguing sheffieldagainstwar.org's call to stop Esso.

Quite a lot of people want to stop Esso. Environmental campaigners have blamed Esso for 5 per cent of all man-made climate-changing gas emissions since JD Rockefeller launched it as the Standard Oil Company in 1870.

My sister-in-law, who has never taken militancy any further than the odd refusal to put the kettle on, was last week moved to embrace me in a viral campaign to blackball the oil company. Esso shareholders have even taken a stance, lobbying the management on global warming.

None of this has tended to bother Esso much, publicly at least. When you're the world's biggest publicly listed oil and gas company, with revenues of $67.6 billion and an inelastic market, you can afford a bit of swagger.

Lee Raymond, the company's chairman and chief executive, is pretty good at that: "We don't invest to make social statements at the expense of shareholder return." So there.

The Stop Esso-ers, though, have kept up the pressure and Esso has launched an ad offensive to fight back, its first UK push for ten years. Since the work (by Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners) is, for the most part, numbingly dull, you might not have been paying attention. So here's a reminder. The execution I've seen several times has an image of the human brain and lots of words - the first three of which are: "Energy. Economy. Environment." I reckon that will have been enough to get most people turning the page.

It's not badly written, in the sense that it's nicely poised and paced.

It's even readable, if you're not bothered about lively, entertaining copy. But it's also pompous, self-satisfied and void of any wit or zip.

In fact, it's as exciting and inviting as a page from the company annual report and, oh my, you can taste the cockiness. The "taking on the world's toughest energy challenges" line has even been trade marked.

Given the volume and passions of Esso's critics, this ad is also strangely defiant, refusing to greatly magnify the environmental issues. "Environment" comes after "Economy", so making sense for the environment comes after the need to be "practical, affordable and viable". In the catalogue of Esso achievements to be proud of, investment in R&D, its 20,000 scientists and 10,000 patents, come ahead of sponsorship of and research into conservation projects. They just can't help themselves.

Even so, this ad seems really no more than a roll call of Esso's PR strategy, an unsubtle attempt to ride that corporate responsibility bandwagon. It may not be the cold, calculated publicity drive it appears, but there is nothing in this ad to persuade or seduce. And when your critics are as passionate and vocal as Esso's, and when petrol costs £1 a litre, such a limp reply is a mere drop of oil in the ocean. And Esso would know all about that.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Despite the number of words, this is no great

new dawn for long copy.

File under ... P for PR.

What would the chairman's wife say? "That reminds me, I must renew my

Greenpeace subscription."

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