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The Oil Industry's advouflage

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Advertising. Supposedly a crucial part of our economy. I guess without it we'd have no idea what to buy and just stand in the middle of our unfurnished living rooms, naked, staring at the wall and eating coins.

Over the decades advertising has evolved from simple posters to slick visual spectacles, and from quaint sexism to thoroughly modern sexism. And consumers have evolved too. We're now so good at filtering out the sensory firehose of modern advertising that companies have to work increasingly hard to sneak into our brains. Sometimes their attempts are charmingly inept (as seen here). But sometimes they're truly undetectable. For example, after this editorial ran in the Vancouver Sun in December…

screenshot from desmog.ca

… an economist took issue with some factual errors and submitted an opinion piece in response. However, the paper told her they couldn't print it because what she read was an ad paid for by Enbridge, the company trying to build the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to B.C. via the hearts and minds of Canadians.

Since the advertorial had no disclaimer, DeSmog filed a complaint against Postmedia (owner of the Sun and a Hearst-esque swath of other print media) with Advertising Standards Canada (ASC), a complaint it rejected this month. A surprising ruling until you learn that ASC self-regulates. Yes, a profession whose entire purpose is to obscure the truth regulates itself. That's like trusting 13-year-old boys to regulate masturbation.

ASC has a Standards Council (made up of senior ad execs) who enforce an official-sounding Code of Advertising Standards which includes:

"Advertising that is directed to children must not exploit their credulity"

Doesn't that describe every single ad directed to children? If they had a normal capacity for skepticism, would the kids in this ad say "Sure, stranger disguised as a clown, let's hug and sit together unsupervised while we eat this food that definitely isn’t seasoned with ground-up Ambien."

And combine that with Standard #11:

"Advertisements must not exploit superstitions"

And you've got every Lucky Charms ad.

Even if the the council finds your ad to be flagrantly misleading rather than the normal amount of misleading, you're simply asked to amend or withdraw it. That's a punishment mechanism about as severe as beer pong: "Dude, I'm aiming right for your concealment of commercial intent. Get ready to chug that shit!"

Whether an advertorial has a disclaimer or doesn't (here's another that doesn't), they're designed to fool people into thinking they aren't ads. And with public opinion turning against their pipelines, the oil industry has a lot of fooling to do. So the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) partnered with Postmedia for an extensive advouflage campaign. A presentation outlining it was leaked earlier this year in the Vancouver Observer, and it includes this letter from the National Post's publisher:

Douglas Kelly, in true gonzo tradition, brilliantly infiltrates The Establishment by disguising himself as the embodiment of it.

To be fair, that's a presentation to advertisers not meant for public eyes, you can't judge them by that. Actually, OF COURSE you can judge them by it. And the true nature of this relationship is perfectly summed up in one slide:

A diagram illustrating how the crude oil flows into the PR tank, where it's mixed with a hardy bullshit slurry before being excreted into the eyes and ears of the general public.

For journalism to have any value, it needs editorial independence. Its role is to educate the public so they can make informed, rational choices, while the sole purpose of advertising is to persuade the public to make uninformed, irrational choices. Exemplified here by the shameless use of sex to sell cars. (he likes his sex romps like he likes his recipes: alphabetized)

CAPP has stated publicly that they don't influence the editorial content of Postmedia papers, but the evidence suggests their editorial independence is effectively interdependence. However, as Postmedia continues to bleed money and chase ad revenue into the gutters, we can take comfort in the knowledge that they'll eventually prostitute themselves into irrelevance. (Unlike prostitution, which is more legit than ever.)

In the meantime, I'm saving up to run my own advertorial across Postmedia's papers. Here's a sample:

This article originally appeared on Medium.

DeSmog, actual journalists and not armchair smartasses like me, broke this story. You can read their original article here.

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