If Oprah Winfrey is willing to plug "Ethical Oil", why stop with the tar sands?
Canada is trying to hit one out of the ballpark with a brazen attempt to re-brand some of the world’s dirtiest and most dangerous oil as “ethical”. They've even got Oprah Winfrey's Network to feature their ads. If we pull it off, there's no reason to stop there. If an “ethical” brand make-over can make our tar sands smell sweet, just imagine how many other profitable, but deadly, industries it can pry open for us.
Talk about an image problem!
The Alberta tar sands are widely feared. Hundreds of people have been arrested in both the USA and Canada protesting the expansion of our tar sands. Europe and California are working to ban them. Climate activists have called the climate pollution from our tar sands the biggest “carbon bomb” on the continent.
The top climate scientist in the US, James Hansen of NASA, says that exploiting them means “game over” for our climate and that any government that allows infrastructure to be built to expand tar sands pollution “either they don't ‘get it’ or they simply do not care about the future of young people.”
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu along with seven other Nobel Peace Prize winners recently called on our Prime Minister “to use your power to halt the expansion of the tar sands. Further exploitation of the tar sands will … make turning the clock back on climate change impossible.” They specifically said that curbing climate pollution is a “profoundly moral decision, one that deserves to be placed alongside any other major struggle in human history.”
The US Environmental Protection Agency says that turning “Alberta asphalt” into oil dumps 80% more climate destabilizing gases into our already whacked out weather system than developing other available oil sources would. The exploding scale of the tar sands is single-handedly preventing Canada from controlling our climate destabilizing pollution, despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper promising the world that we would. And we haven’t even gotten to the part about ripping up the boreal forests, or duck-killing, toxic lakes, or cancer clusters, or oil fouled rivers.
Audacious marketing trick: the "Ethical Canada" brand
Here is where the miracle of marketing comes in.
Sure you are stuck with a product that by all accounts is more polluting and destructive than the exact same product from your competition. And sure your customers are starting to feel that all the extra damage caused by your product makes it a less ethical choice for them. Don't worry. Marketing magic says you just pretend your weakness is really your greatest strength. Voila: “ethical oil”. Wasn’t that slick?
You might have noticed that the “ethical” in “ethical oil” doesn’t actually refer to the oil. Nope. That battle is lost. The “ethical” instead refers to the general behaviour of the people that happen to live in the same nation as the multi-nationals’ carbon mines.
Neat trick, eh?
If you're having trouble marketing a dirtier and more dangerous product, just change the subject and market something completely different: like Canadian goodness.
Now the correct statement would be something like “unethical oil from a nation that also does some ethical things”. But seriously, we are talking marketing here, not boy scouts. To paraphrase that great green marketer, the Wizard of Oz: “pay no attention to that nasty product behind the curtain.”
Now if Big Oil and our Harper government can pull off this audacious “ethical” branding trick, why on earth would we stop at “oil”? There are a myriad of unethical products that we could re-habilitate and profit from just by masking their foul smell with the new pine-scented “ethical Canada” brand. If there are jobs on the line, we almost have to do it. Here are a few to consider:
I know what you're thinking: not even marketing can make a known carcinogenic product, like asbestos that you refuse to even put warning labels on, into an “ethical” product. Yes, yes, Canadians wouldn’t be caught alive using our own fibrous, cancer-causing, asbestos. We export it all.
And, yes, again, Canada spends millions of dollars a year to very carefully -- while wearing hazmat suits -- remove any asbestos we find in our own buildings. Seriously, who wants asbestos in their home? And sure Canada was the only nation willing to block an international treaty requiring warning labels on asbestos.
But all that negativity about our asbestos will melt away when our “ethical asbestos” brand hits the airwaves. You see, we have lots of Canadians who have nothing to do with our nasty asbestos products. Many play hockey. Even more vote. So we have plenty of warm fuzzy “ethical” out there in our big nation to strip mine and sell off.
Let’s take a look at our closest competitor in the offloading asbestos game: Kazakhstan. It just sounds “unethical”. But don’t just take our marketing panel’s word for it. Newsweek picks Canada as seventh “best” country and Kazakhstan as…wait for it…61st. Nuf said.
So when poor developing nations reach into their threadbare pockets to buy some fireproof material they shouldn’t think about how “ethical” each of the various products are. No, no. That’s a confusing distraction. It’s the whole reason we vetoed the global labelling treaty.
Instead, our federal government can use our tax dollars and our shiny new “ethical” brand to get consumers to think deeply -- and only -- about just what kind of ethics the selling nation really has. Oh, and we mean “ethics” in a vague general sense that is unconnected to anything to do with our asbestos, our asbestos industry or our government’s actions around our asbestos.
Want to vote for the next big Canadian slogan? Try these:
a) “Ethical asbestos. From Canada with love.”
b) “Ethical asbestos. Canada’s moral fibre.”
c) “Ethical asbestos. Support Canadian values.”
Ethical High-Nicotine Cigarettes
We know it is possible to make cigarettes that are much more addictive. But an unfortunate taint of “dirtier and more damaging” plus plain old-fashioned “immorality” hangs over it. That’s where Canada’s new “ethical” marketing could pry open this jobs and profits bonanza for the tobacco companies.
Yes, cigarettes would be much worse for you, but come on, there are nice people in Canada. Focus on that. In fact, we can start a focus group right now by letting you choose your favourite slogan:
a) “Ethical cigarettes. They are worse, but we are better.”
b) “Ethical cigarettes. Friendly Canadian cancer.”
c) “Ethical cigarettes. We’re worth it.”
Amazingly, Canada is blessed with just the man for the job: Ezra Levant, the person who literally wrote the book on “Ethical Oil”. As luck would have it, Mr. Levant also has recent experience as registered tobacco lobbyist representing the Philip Morris subsidiary of Rothman’s Inc. How lucky can ethical Canadians get?
Talk about a loyal and committed customer base. Wow. Ka-ching. If ever there was a growth industry being held back because its product is viewed by most people as “unethical” and “immoral”, then this is it. Let’s be honest: we know people use meth. And right now all that profit is going to deeply unethical people. If it is going to be sold anyway, the profits should go to global corporations making their meth right here amongst a bunch of ethical people in Canada. It can even be a much nastier and more dangerous meth. It just doesn’t matter because we aren’t going to talk about the actual product. Remember?
So what will it be?
a) “Ethical meth. A Canadian no brainer.”
b) “Ethical meth. Buy from us, not the creeps.”
c) “Ethical meth. Speeding Canada-based multinationals to a richer tomorrow.”
“Ethical” or “Game over”?
Let’s end by returning to the current “ethical” marketing campaign: the one to dramatically ramp up our tar sands’ climate pollution.
Climate activist and author, Bill McKibben tells Rolling Stone why he is helping lead one of the largest and most sustained civil disobedience actions in decades in the USA. In one two-week stretch, hundreds of people got arrested at the White House protesting this Canadian attempt to radically expand our tar sands’ carbon pollution. McKibben:
…those tar sands are the second-biggest pool of carbon on earth, after the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Burning up Saudi Arabia is the biggest reason the Earth's temperature has already risen one degree from pre-industrial levels, that epic flood and drought have become ubiquitous, and that the Arctic is melting away. Since we didn't know about climate change when we started in on Saudi Arabia, you can't really blame anyone. But if we do it a second time in Canada, we deserve what we get.
If you do the calculations, explains James Hansen – the planet's most important climate scientist, who was arrested at the White House about halfway through the two weeks of protest – opening up the tar sands to heavy exploitation would mean "it's essentially game over" for the climate. Which is a sentence worth reading twice.
…the guys supporting this thing [ramping up tar sands pollution] have most of the money on earth – the oil industry is the most profitable thing human beings have ever done, by far. ExxonMobil made more money last year than any company in the history of . . . money. If it comes down to money, and it usually does, we'll lose.
…we needed to rely on a different currency, one that we possess and they don't. For two weeks, that currency was our bodies…
On the one side, Big Oil corporations and Stephen Harper’s government are teaming up to spend big to sell an aggressive expansion of Canada’s climate destabilizing pollution as more “ethical” than the less damaging alternatives. On the other side, climate science is saying we must leave most of the tar sands climate pollution in the ground forever if we want to avoid dangerous destabilization of our weather and nasty acidification of our oceans.
Will Canadians allow Big Oil and the Harper government to strip mine Canada’s “ethics”, the way they are strip mining our boreal forests, in the name of radically expanding Canada’s dirty and dangerous climate pollution? And if we do, then just how long before “ethical Canada” has lost its meaning -- and we have lost our way?