Should Google Treat Fossil Fuel Companies Like It Treats Tobacco & Firearm Companies?

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By Liam J. Kelly

2018 saw a number of different divestments from global institutions in the fossil fuel sector and their subsidiaries. While the move likely won’t fix global warming, it has changed the way in which citizens understand how deeply rooted many organizations are in coal, oil, and gas companies. After divesting, firms also shudder at the thought of being de-platformed. Consider the advertising giant Google, for instance.

Marketing Powerhouse

In 2017, Statista reported that Google generated nearly $95.4 billion from ads alone, with data from the first three quarters of 2018 indicating a similar trajectory. More importantly, this figure made up more than 80 percent of total revenue, which in 2017 touched $110 billion. Marketers and journalists alike have been well aware of the search engine’s identity as an advertising tool.

It has ranked highly as the go-to choice for marketers and boasted four million advertisers in 2015, according to Macquarie Research. No matter how you cut it, the search engine is one of the world’s largest soapboxes. But determining precisely who gets a chance to speak is much more difficult.

For starters, companies that promote tobacco and firearm products have all been blacklisted from advertising with the search company. Illicit drugs and explosives are also excluded for obvious reasons. In the company’s “dangerous products or services” section of its ads policies, Google writes, “we want to help keep people safe both online and offline, so we don’t allow the promotion of some products or services that can cause damage, harm, or injury.”

It’s not difficult to see the damage or harm that can come from explosives and illicit drug use. Tobacco and their electronic derivatives come with a host of health risks too. Before weighing the morality of gambling, adult content, and privacy breaches, Google draws a clear argument for silencing activity that may be dangerous to human life.

Rising Sea Levels is Only the Beginning

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlined the multi-layered blowback on human health that would coincide with climate change.

Blistering heatwaves killed 96 people total in Japan, 29 people in Seoul, and dozens others in North America in the summer of 2018. Seasonal wildfires contribute to poorer air quality in neighboring cities and higher ground-level ozone levels lead to measurable human respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

All of this is further aggravated by the altered dissemination of vector born diseases. Ticks and mosquitos, the insects most likely to carry Lyme disease and West Nile Virus, thrive in warm climates. Drastic shifts in temperature mean that these insects arrive earlier in the year and stay much longer. Climate change’s threat to food security and its production is also well-documented.

The literature on climate change leaves little doubt about its adverse effects on citizens all over the world. Similarly, experts are clear as to its causes. In the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), they concluded that not only are they 95% sure that climate change has been a result of human activity, but that the combustion of fossil fuels needed for our industrialized society are the main culprits. Although a number of high-profile oil companies would like you to believe differently, fossil fuels are the #1 cause of global warming.

Shifting the Conversation

The irony behind these realities is that firms like ExxonMobil Corporation have been well aware of the situation. In fact, they’ve been contributing to the body of research for over 40 years. Despite this, both Exxon and Chevron were included in the Carbon Majors Report, with Exxon coming in as the number five largest carbon footprint and Chevron placed further down the list at 12.

In a paper titled, “Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014),” Harvard researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes reviewed 187 documents from ExxonMobil to determine if the firm “has in the past misled the general public about climate change.”

The most telling conclusion comes in the distinction between how the company conveys doubt to an academic audience compared to a general one. The authors write, “accounting for expressions of reasonable doubt, 83% of peer-reviewed papers and 80% of internal documents acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, yet only 12% of advertorials do so, with 81% instead expressing doubt.” As a side note, advertorials are articles that appear as original contributions from a newspaper but are in fact bought by a private company.

This research appears to be industry-wide too. Between December 1, 2011, and June 1, 2012,  a number of pro-oil lobbyists including Crossroads GPS, American Future Fund, Americans for Prosperity, and American Energy Allegiance spent a combined total of $24.9 million on energy-related advertisements containing misleading information during Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

Politifact picked apart an Americans for Prosperity advertisement which claimed that taxpayer dollars spent on green energy actually went to jobs in foreign countries. The Washington Post wrote another a similarly scathing report of the think tank’s attack on green energy.

Following the Money

The spending pyramid from lobbyists, gas and oil firms, and automobile companies reveals a number of realities about how resources are being used on advertising in the sector. Koch Industries, for instance, spent a total of $9,990,000 on lobbying expenses for oil and gas in 2018. These expenses were divided between 9 contractors, including Capitol Tax Partners, Clark Hill PLC, and Crossroads Strategies.

ExxonMobil is estimated to spend $100 million a year on print, digital, and television advertising campaigns. In November 2000, Zenith Media Worldwide announced its claim to that account. In a different press release from 2012, Universal McCann (UM) announced that it would be taking over the marketing responsibilities for the company. Figures cited then estimated that ExxonMobil’s global media budget fell between $111 million in 2009 and $51 million in the first half of 2010.

The lobbying expenditures for ExxonMobil reached $11.5 million in 2018, but touched nearly $30 million in 2008, right around election time in the United States. In fact, Koch Industries, Exxon, and Chevron all spent above average amounts on lobbying costs in the years of 2008 and 2009.

The next runner-up in the list of highest grossing oil and gas companies in the U.S., Chevron Texaco, reportedly spends anywhere from $65 million to $150 million on paid media according to AdWeek. In 2018, however, the company spent just under $10 million on lobbying campaigns.

Automotive companies, such as General Motors and Toyota Motor Sales USA, spend significantly more on advertising. According to Statista, GM has spent an average of $3.12 billion on advertising each year from 2007 to 2017. Toyota reportedly spent $1 billion on marketing measures in the fourth quarter of 2009 in the U.S. alone.

Determining exactly how much of this money is spent on Google advertisements is tricky, but that’s just fine for the Internet firm.

Tight Lips & a Thriving Green Campaign

The specific demographics fall under the murky banner of “Google Advertising” with little disclosure regarding who exactly is paying for ads. National regulators have also complained about this. In July of 2017, the SEC filed a letter with Google’s CEO Larry Page asking him to further detail the revenue reported “from ads placed on Google Network Member’s properties on a gross basis.” CleanTechnica reached out to Google regarding the specific sources of advertising revenue, but they have made no comment as of the time of press.

This comes as no surprise either since Google has been pushing hard to “go fully green,” is funding eco-friendly projects worldwide, and attends to a strict set of sustainability policies. If news starts going around that Google also receives a chunk of cash from pro-oil lobby groups, the privacy-centric search engine DuckDuckGo might finally get its break.

After Google, every other major Internet company has a role to play as well.

When one-third of the entire world’s population is using a service, you can be sure that it (Facebook) is a huge target for misinformation campaigns. Facebook’s “Ad Archive Report” reported that ExxonMobil spent more than $2.1 million on Facebook ads. And when evaluating every other Internet platform’s finances, oil companies only need to convince one to take their money.

YouTube attracts a reported 1.8 billion users every month, 197 million users visited Amazon in 2017, and there are 1.3 billion active Apple devices as of February 20, 2018. Each of these platforms has some branch of advertising revenue that turns over multi-millions of dollars and they’d be hard-pressed to shut all that down.

After organizations like 350 and gofossilfree made the idea of divesting from institutions that support the web of fossil fuel firms popular, it seems like it’s time now to demand transparency from the largest digital advertisers. Currently, the financial details of Google, YouTube, Amazon, and Apple are far from clear. They command millions, sometimes billions, of dollars from this revenue model. But the identities of business partners remain shrouded in opacity.

For a small sample of who the top investible coal, gas, and oil companies are, request a list of the top 200 from Fossil Fuel Indexes (FFI) here. These names and their subsidiaries will likely start cropping up as the United States heads into another round of elections. The only question now is, will we see their advertisements on Google?

Appendix: Advertising Revenue Generated from Internet Companies

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