Energy sector's ads are more than slick

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On one level, it's easy to admire the sheer chutzpah of the American Petroleum Institute.

The lobbying arm of the American energy sector has crafted a television ad campaign so insincere, yet insinuating, that to call it "slick" would be to damn it with faint praise. "Luciferian" is the adjective that best describes its "woe for us poor working-class stiffs" audacity.

The commercials are master classes in how to put the anxieties of ordinary Americans into the service of corporate interests at odds with their own.

One opens with an ominous declaration: "Congress is considering $80 billion in new energy taxes." A very concerned black man can barely contain his bewilderment at the notion before responding, "It is not a good idea to raise taxes on the oil and natural gas industry -- it will kill jobs."

You get the picture. "Americans say 'No' to raising energy taxes," another API ad declares. A middle-aged black woman responds with a note of defiance in her voice: "[This is] certainly not the time to raise taxes. Some people are barely holding on."

A white woman echoes the sentiment in another ad when informed that bad men in Washington are seriously contemplating the unthinkable. "Raising taxes on energy will hurt the economy, putting people in more of a bind," she opines, demonstrating that sticking up for the energy giants is patriotic at a time like this.

An Asian-American man bookends the theme, saying in his ad: "Families are having a tough time. The last thing they need is higher taxes."

None of these "ordinary" people, interrupted in the middle of their ordinary days by a camera crew bearing unhappy tidings of impending energy taxes, will be storming the Bastille anytime soon. They are so aghast that the heroic energy sector is under threat of taxation that they've taken to the airwaves to protest.

Before this ad campaign came along, I didn't think anything could top the ads BP ran during the height of the Gulf oil spill disaster. Remember the "ordinary" folks who stepped forward to take responsibility for cleaning up the Gulf and processing the claims? They assured viewers that they were "born and raised" in the Gulf region and that they would personally see that all would be set right -- or they would die trying.

Those ads were designed to convince us that BP was little more than a mom-and-pop operation run by Cajuns and amiable people of color.

After former BP CEO Tony Hayward's infamous "I want my life back" statement was followed by BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg's inadvertently comic "we care about the small people" declaration, it seems that every white guy who looks or sounds like a clueless plutocrat has been banished from BP advertising. Fierce lobbying for the company's interests continues, meanwhile, in the halls of Congress.

How do these companies do it? How are they able to hornswoggle so many "ordinary" Americans into identifying with corporate interests and voting against their own?

A trip to API's website is instructive on this point. It is attractive, easy to navigate and filled with utopian sentiments and industry propaganda you want desperately to believe.

"You may be surprised to learn that middle class pension and retirement plans hold a large percentage of oil and gas company stocks," it states. In other words, the more obscene the corporate profits, the fatter your 401(k) will be when you retire.

The API site is a wonderland of good news about everything from Marcellus Shale to the promise of oil sands in Western Canada as dependable sources for America's energy independence. There's nary a hint of controversy about any of the technology used to extract it. You might even consider drinking hydraulic "fracking" water straight out of the burning tap by the time you get to the voter registration area.

Just how confident is an industry when it posts a countdown clock to the midterm elections? Answer: very!

Without tipping its hat in an obviously partisan way, the API Voter Guide leaves little doubt about what kind of candidates it wants the "small people" to vote for in November. It even walks you through the whole process of registering and becoming "informed" as the industry defines it.

I'm just relieved that the folks who crafted API's and BP's commercials weren't around in 1863. I'm sure they could've made the freedom promised by the Emancipation Proclamation sound like a bad idea compared to the dignity of slavery.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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