A witty bunch of activists have started Arctic Ready, a website purporting to be the public face of Shell's Arctic operations. It's slick and well-done; a casual glance might deceive you into thinking that it's actually real, until you start reading and navigating.
The site explains that it wants to provide users with a personal connection to Shell and provide information about drilling campaigns...and, of course, it comes with a healthy side of snarky commentary embedded in corporatespeak.
In 2005, we at Shell entered Alaska with a determination to satisfy the world's demand for safe, affordable energy. This year, the Obama Administration recognized both the Arctic's enormous untapped potential and Shell's unique position as natural leader to reach that potential, and granted Shell unrivalled access to drill the vast snowy wastes of the North.
Poke around a bit and you'll learn about some of Shell's installations. Along the way, you'll encounter some reminders of the hazards of oil exploration, including a lengthy discussion of oil spills. The site doesn't go into hardcore detailed statistics and information roundups, because these might disrupt the realism of the parody, but it's certainly a good starting point for talking about these issues.
The best part of the site by far, though, is a fictional social media campaign, the Let's Go Public! Ad Contest:
Today, we want to take the Arctic Ready message offline, directly to the drivers who benefit from Shell’s performance fuels. That's why we're launching a new campaign (deadline this Thursday!), from which the best ads will be printed and posted in strategic locations worldwide. With your help, we at Shell can tell the world how pumped we are about Arctic energy, and take the Arctic Ready message to Arctic-enthused drivers everywhere.
Users have participated with glee.
The submissions are hilarious, bittersweet, and everything in between.
Of course, as the campaign goes viral, a lot of users are not aware that this is not actually Shell, and misinformation continues to attribute it to Shell's social media team; people are saying it's a great object lesson in how not to run such campaigns and they're mocking Shell for excuting this so poorly. In the course of making a fake bad social media campaign, the activists created a big social media problem for Shell, which was, of course, precisely the goal.
Many companies don't really have a good handle on social media yet, and have trouble with problems of their own making, let alone parody campaigns intended to hit them where it hurts. The company has a few options for dealing with the situation, but a lot of them boil down to telling people it's not them, which of course serves to draw even more attention to the campaign. A public statement from Shell will definitely make sure anyone who didn't know before does now.
I happen to be a huge fan of this kind of activism because it involves taking extant tools and making them work for us, rather than against us. Viral social media campaigns can be an immensely great tool for sparking conversation and reaching people, and it's great to see people using them for the force of public awareness; as people circulate these links, they're talking about drilling in the Arctic and the potential consequences of exploring fragile ecological territories.
This isn't the first time activists have taken to social media to play with oil companies; @BPGlobalPR created quite a splash during the Deepwater Horizon spill. There are some situations where humour is called for, and where it can be the best way to reach a wide audience; instead of grim statistics, why not make jokes?
We're facing a lot of hard and complex conversations in the coming years as we attempt to balance conflicting needs with the reality that the climate is changing, and we need to be prepared to adapt to it. Campaigns like this have an element of silly and are intended to get people cracking up, passing the links around, and talking about them, but there's an important undertone here too, which is that we need to be talking about what Shell, and other oil companies, are doing.
And we need to be looking at the role of our own government, as well as others. This also requires taking a hard look at ourselves, because we are part of the complex web driving the global demand for oil. We are not just driving, but consuming goods that require oil at every stage of production, eating food that requires massive amounts of fossil fuels, and using electricity that continues to come from nonsustainable sources despite a growing interest in wind, solar, and other alternatives.
Since many people can't apply enough critical thinking to tell that this campaign is false, though, I worry about our capacity to have these conversations, let alone take action to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.