Businesses polish their environmental image


November 27, 1990|By Grant Ferrier | Grant Ferrier,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Maintaining a good environmental image is a one-way street. If you're not regarded as environmentally conscious, you suffer. If you are, you don't necessarily benefit -- or at least it's hard to measure those benefits.

The environment is one of several "response mechanisms" used by General Motors Corp. to gauge public opinion, according to Harry Smith, director of public relations. "We know that environmental considerations are important, but we can't measure the benefits yet in terms of car sales. There's simply too much noise out there right now," Smith says.

General Motors recently ran a campaign focused on safety. A print and TV advertisement that will take the environment as its theme is planned.

Pollution-sensitive design has already proved to influence sales. In 1988 GM equipped the European Opel with a catalytic converter, which was the dominant reason for the company's increase in market share in Europe.

Although public interest in pollution-conscious design is indisputable, the company is getting a double message from buyers. "Schizophrenia is afoot," Smith says. "The public wants performance and environmental responsibility. Our task is to give them both."

Chevron has been spending millions of dollars in the difficult task of persuading the public that an oil company can be environmentally sensitive. The most visible of its efforts at environmental image-building is the "People Do" campaign. A bear awakes from hibernation to find nature unspoiled after winter oil explorations; rare grouse breed uninterrupted; birds of prey land safely on wooden platforms above electric power line -- all thanks to Chevron. Such images are appealing and, in the opinion of Chevron, they work.

"The environment is the area in which people are most critical of oil companies," says Dan Johnson, manager of corporate advertising. "The public mostly hears about the industry when there's a catastrophe. As a result, we felt it important to communicate our ongoing environmental performance."

The focus of the series, Johnson says, is "not to tout Chevron's contributions but to provide information about our activities in the context of our business operations . . . People buy products for many different reasons including whether or not the consumer believes a company is socially responsible . . . and although Chevron didn't make the ads to sell more gas, we know that they do." Chevron plans to continue the 4-year-old campaign indefinitely.

Without the company's other efforts -- its communications with environmental groups, its sponsorship of National Geographic TV specials, its special projects -- the ad campaign would fall flat, Johnson says.

Also vital to a successful campaign, he believes, is an excellent relationship with a good advertising agency. J. Walter Thompson of San Francisco, the agency responsible for Chevron's advertisements, aimed beyond traditional corporate concepts.

"So much corporate advertising seems to be companies talking to themselves rather than considering what's important to the public," says David Soblin, vice president account director at the agency. "They traditionally have style but lack substance."

The Chevron ads were researched in detail and shot on location, right where each incident actually took place, Soblin says. Even the bear's hibernation dug-out was faithfully reconstructed.

Despite Chevron's apparent success with the campaign, other oil companies seem to have little interest in spending on corporate-level environmental advertising.

At ARCO "we simply do our job well and adhere to proper environmental standards," says Albert Greenstein, manager of media relations. Although ARCO had done very little corporate advertising by the end of last year, the exception was ARCO Alaska Inc., where television and print campaigns have been running for 13 years. ARCO Alaska is the biggest private employer in the state.

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