Since 1985, Chevron has been telling California residents about its ecological good deeds. Its six "People Do" commercials--three began rerunning Saturday on ABC affiliates in Los Angeles and San Francisco during Olympic coverage--paint rosy pictures of Chevron's good work to protect the environment.
But . . . the spots are airing at a time when the company is embroiled in lawsuits for polluting the environment.
One spot, and a related print ad, points out that the San Francisco-based Chevron installed a fenced-in area to help the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly thrive and multiply on two acres at its El Segundo Refinery complex. But the waste-water discharge from that refinery was the focus of an 18-month legal battle between Chevron and the Environmental Protection Agency. Finally, in January, Chevron agreed to pay $1.5 million in penalties for illegally dumping thousands of pounds of pollutants into Santa Monica Bay.
Meanwhile, the Chevron is entangled in another, similar lawsuit with the Sierra Club over other alleged El Segundo violations.
Recalling the first time she saw the Blue Butterfly spots, Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund attorney Deborah Reames said: "I was struck by the irony of Chevron promoting its environmental image by expending moderate amounts of money on the environment in the very area where it has saved itself tens of millions of dollars by not installing the pollution-control equipment required by law to keep Santa Monica Bay clean."
"We're not perfect, but we're trying," said Grid Toland, Chevron's manager of community affairs. "The fact that we've been involved in a lawsuit with the EPA doesn't take away from the positive news. We've put $22 million into new facilities for storm runoff, and we still have a plot of land set aside for the El Segundo Blue Butterfly.
"It's been hard for us to get attention for the good news," Toland said. That's where J. Walter Thompson Advertising's $4.4-million-a-year ad campaign comes in. It helps spread good news--like the fact that Chevron took old gas tanks and created artificial reefs off the Florida coast, thus providing a home for marine life.
And even though Chevron spent some $137 million in environmental projects at its refineries in 1987, it has become "a convenient political target" for environmental groups, Toland said. "You could use an industry like ours as a villain and source of almost unlimited fund-raising."
Actually, Chevron's campaign benefitted the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, both of which collected income for Chevron ads in regional or California editions of their magazines. (Ads also ran in Time, Newsweek, Discover, Scientific American and National Geographic.)
The Sierra Club--still slugging it out in the courts with Chevron--accepted five full-page, four-color Chevron ads last year (for $25,000 total), confirmed Sierra Magazine managing publisher Ilene Briggin. (The next ad appears in the March/April issue.)
Briggin said that disapproving readers have sent letters. "I wouldn't say it's a very large percentage. If it was, we'd probably think about it twice," she said.
"I'm sure the L.A. Times gets ads all the time from people who don't particularly like the thrust of an ad (and) don't approve of the message," Briggin added.