By Jamison Cocklin
You’ve seen the commercials that run daily on local networks and cable television throughout Ohio.
Some feature an oil and gas worker riding in an American-manufactured pickup through a bucolic community where he knows the people he lives and works around.
Another is set to rolling, progressive music with a stern, convincing voice-over that highlights the jobs and economic benefits of an expansion that occurred at U.S. Steel’s Lorain plant in October 2012 to manufacture pipe for the drilling industry.
“Steel — once a symbol of America’s might — now a symbol of our will,” the commercial intones. “Thanks to the energy industry, places like Lorain, Ohio, are booming again, meeting the demand for the high-quality steel our oil and natural-gas industry is using in its wells to protect groundwater, create jobs and secure America’s energy future.”
The ads are part of a multimillion- dollar public-relations campaign spearheaded by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s premier trade association, which represents more than 500 companies.
They’re nothing new, of course. For years, the print, television, online and radio ads have been geared toward building grass-roots and statewide support and helping to meet a number of goals for the industry’s operations in places such as Arkansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, where shale-gas development has taken center stage.
To be sure, the advertisements that tout the economic benefits of the industry are not entirely unjustified. By its own estimate, API has said oil and gas supports more than 9.2 million jobs nationwide, contributes 7.7 percent to the U.S. economy and generates $86 million in revenue for government each day.
But the “Energy from Shale” campaign, though it may be highly visible in newspapers and on prime time each night, is peculiar in a way. Unlike similar ad campaigns from politicians and other industries such as health care, the marketing continues to occur in off years, when a presidential election, for instance, is not front and center, or at a time when no major disaster warrants a public- relations strategy such as the kind that aired|nationwide from BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
“The industry has done foolish things that have increased resistance to it,” said Pamela E. Grimm, associate professor and chairwoman of the Department of Marketing & Entrepreneurship at Kent State University. “Now, there’s push-back from the industry itself with more marketing, communications and advertising to get people to have a more favorable opinion of fracking.”
If anything, the advertisements demonstrate that oil and gas is an extremely polarized topic, where any middle ground is becoming increasingly scarce as shale development ramps up and the debate about it continues to unfold.
To Shawn Bennett, Ohio spokesman for the industry outreach group Energy InDepth, the ad campaign is about creating a dialogue.
“I think the reason you’re seeing this happen is because oil and gas development is getting at the forefront in Ohio,” he said. “As we continue to develop the Utica, you want to make sure the public is educated about the economic benefits and that they know it’s safe.”
Energy From Shale is part of a national, growing advocacy campaign that also includes grass-roots activities, lobbying activity and educational efforts, said Carlton Carroll, an API spokesman. He added that the goal is to engage “tens of millions of voters” nationwide.
Though he would not provide the exact cost of the campaign, data at the Center for Responsive Politics shows that API already has spent more than $2 million on advertising this year. In 2012, the organization dedicated about $7.3 million to advertising.
“I think what they’re trying to do is not about changing the minds of those who already hold strong opinions, but trying to get people who don’t already have clearly formed opinions,” Grimm said. “They want to get their message in front of them that fracking is beneficial to the community and individuals.”
Grimm added that the ultimate goal, though, is most likely aimed at curbing restrictive legislation in statehouses across the country and reducing the number of constituents who lobby against the industry. In this way, the line between promotion and propaganda is blurred, she said.
“Look, if their product was so great, they wouldn’t need to spend millions to say how fantastic it is,” said Julian Boggs, a state policy advocate with Environment Ohio. “When you direct that kind of money, it represents public concerns and questions about how beneficial their products really are — it gets people thinking about environmental impacts, health and safety.”
Linda Woggon, executive vice president of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, said the ads are important, though. She said the economic benefits of the industry in Ohio cannot be ignored, and people statewide, such as those in the western part of the state where fracking is not occurring, should be aware of its impacts and how to take advantage of it.
“It’s really important. I believe that this will have the largest economic impact of anything we’ve seen in this state in recent history,” Woggon said. “If that turns out to be the case, the public has to get its arms around this and understand it.”
Carroll said the ads will continue as part of the industry’s “ongoing dialogue with policymakers and the public” for exactly that reason.