While watching five minutes of one of the professional football games this past Sunday, I experienced a very bizarre TV commercial.
On the surface, it had markings of a typical spot promoting tourism: people having fun doing things and eating. But right away, this commercial seemed different. The people in the ad joyously proclaimed that they were from four different states, all along the Gulf of Mexico: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. They seemed to be engaged in a very friendly rivalry over which state was the better place for a vacation.
But something seemed out of place, something seemed strange: The Floridians weren’t talking about theme parks. The Louisianans weren’t talking about either Cajun food or riverboats. The Mississippians said nothing of casinos. And the Alabamans breathed not a word about football. No one was talking about what made their state distinctive.
Instead every image was of people doing one of two things:
- Eating seafood, assumed to be locally caught.
- Enjoying the beach and water activities.
This act of extreme homogenization of four very different states and the distillation of their similarities into two attributes seemed bizarre. It made me feel a little ill at ease because I kept wanting them to “show me the Mickey,” or at least a football play. I would have settled for a shot of a jazz band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I just couldn’t believe that anyone would think they could sell people on traveling to any of these four states just for a sandy beach and fried shrimp.
But it all made sense at the end of the commercial when we learned on an almost empty still screen that BP Oil sponsored the spot.
In other words, running this spot is part of the reparations that BP is paying the Gulf states for the 2010 Deep Horizon oil spill, which sent oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for three months.
It looks to me as if the committee that cobbled together the concept for this spot used the heavy-as-a-Mack-truck touch characteristic of BP’s interactions with the public during the three months in which nothing the experts tried could cap the leak. Notice first, the avoidance of the problem, much as BP tried to avoid speaking about the leak: Nowhere in the commercial does anyone say that the Gulf of Mexico shore had a problem. Instead we get the squeamishly happy assertions by proud state supporters that their state is the best place to vacation, all exemplified by the images of succulent seafood and pristine shorelines that prove that the Gulf Shore is fine. Only those who remember the images of oil-covered birds and enormous slick floating ovals will get the connection.
Note, too, how narrowly the commercial addresses the unspoken public issue of the spill’s aftermath and nothing else. That’s why there’s no room to mentioned Florida’s theme parks or Louisiana’s red beans and rice. Every image and statement focuses solely on how the public issue plays out for people who want to go on vacation: beach activities and seafood. A lawyer must have figured that one out. It was this kind of narrow response that made BP chair Tony Hayward look so uncaring and uninformed.
Finally, note that way the message—that Gulf waters and beaches are clean—is married to a product for sale, to wit, vacationing on Gulf beaches. Someone on the committee insisted that as long as BP was going to do “image advertising,” some industry should benefit.
Of course, none of the states will benefit from an ad such as this one. No one says, “Honey, let’s go to a Gulf beach this next vacation,” the way they may say, “Let’s go to Europe” or “Let’s go to Africa.” It will take many years and more money than BP will want to spend to establish the idea of the Gulf as a region to visit. And why would any of these states want to homogenize their image? Why would Louisiana want to tell people that it’s “just like Alabama?” Meanwhile, all of these states already have their own clear image to tourists, which depends to a small degree only on seafood and beaches.
The ineptness of the ad would astonish if BP did not already have a track record for awkward and rigidly controlled communications. It seems as if BP has a tin ear to how the public reacts to anything other than the price of gasoline.