BP has spent more than £800,000 on social media influencer ads in the UK this year championing the company’s investment in green energy, it can be revealed.
On Tuesday, BP posted a 14-year high profit of £7bn. for the second quarter of this year. In the previous eight days, the company paid around £570,000 to Facebook and Instagram for influencer ads that reached tens of thousands of viewers in the UK.
“These ads are intended to create a pure warm glow about the companies concerned and give them more social license to operate,” said Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK.
The influence ads, which also highlight BP’s contribution to UK energy security, began two days after Labour proposed an unexpected tax on North Sea oil and gas in January. BP’s spending on these ads escalated in the weeks before Rishi Sunak announced an “energy profits tax” on May 26, the investigation by Eco-Bot.Net and the Guardian found. “Backing Britain: delivery homegrown energy” read many of the ads in green print across a map of Britain.
“Corporate interests have used advertising for many years to improve their reputation. And when it comes to corporate taxes, reputations matter to politicians,” said Laura Edelsona researcher in online political communication at New York University.
The impact ads promote BP’s plan to “go to net zero” by gradually reducing oil and gas production and investing more in “low carbon” and renewable energy sources.
“BP presents itself as offering green solutions that are good for Britain, but these investments are overshadowed by how much money they spend on fossil fuels,” Parr said. “They are doing this while making record profits and as millions of UK households are pushed into fuel poverty.”
BP has some of the more ambitious energy transition plans among major oil and gas companies, but one analysis by Oil Change International in May found that the sector’s plans are far from enough to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – the target outlined in the Paris Agreement.
“The green investments they describe represent only a small fraction of current energy production and investment behavior,” said Gregory Trencher, who researches energy policy and sustainability transitions at Kyoto University. “In that sense, the ads are misleading.”
“It’s like someone who is still in the process of changing to a healthy diet, but who asks to be praised in advance. This does not tell the reader that BP continues to open up new oil and gas fields,” said Trencher, who describes the ads as “greenwashing.”
A BP spokesman said: “The UK is a microcosm of our strategy and we are investing heavily here. Our ads highlight the detail, scope and scale of the things we plan to do here – including offshore wind, North Sea oil and gas, hydrogen and carbon capture and electric car charging.”
Shell, which announced record profits last monthhas also paid Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, to run dozens of influencer ads this year that reached more than a million viewers in the UK.
The ads promoted Shell’s investments in renewable energy and electric car charging stations, but were not listed by the company as relating to “social issues, elections and politics” – and as such ran without a disclaimer about who paid for the ad.
“Better transparency for users, like who’s paying to put this information in front of them, helps them put what they’re seeing into context,” said Edelson, who also advises Real Facebook Supervisory Boarda self-appointed activist group that holds Facebook’s supervisory board to account.
Usage and reach information is published only in Meta’s ad library for social issues and political ads, and only those ads remain visible in the library after they are terminated.
The Shell ads investigated were ultimately removed by Meta for violate company policybut the investigation found that dozens of similar ads had been running without disclaimers for more than a month, apparently undetected by Meta’s moderation process.
A Shell spokesperson said: “Shell aims for clarity, transparency and trust in all our communications. The disclaimer policy applied to Meta advertising is something that Shell fully supports.
“Initial investigations suggest that the disclaimer was mistakenly not applied to any recent Shell content and we are investigating this with our media buying agency. We have also asked them to take immediate remedial action.”
A Meta spokesperson said: “We require all advertisers showing ads on social issues, including those on environmental topics, to include a ‘paid for’ disclaimer. Our enforcement isn’t perfect, but we’re always working to strengthen and improve our processes.“
Eco-Bot.Net scrapes databases of social media ads paid for by some of the world’s most polluting companies. The ads are then analyzed by journalists and researchers.
Meta offers to put ads in front of specific “custom audiences” based on the detailed profiles of users they build. Audiences are segmented by age, gender, geographic location, income, and many other types of personal data in a practice called “microtargeting.”
Analysis showed that most of BP’s UK-targeted ads this year reached viewers aged between 25 and 44, but a more detailed analysis of targeting practices was not possible based on the data available in Meta’s ad library.
Shell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.