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The trouble with Enbridge Northern Gateway's television ad

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Something about the Canucks versus Canadiens hockey game Saturday night has stayed with me, producing a mental itch that won’t go away.

It wasn’t Dan Hamhuis scoring on his own net on a whiffed pass, double ricochet off Roberto Luongo , although that will haunt the Canuck defenceman for the rest of his career.

It was in a break from the action when my TV screen filled with beautiful images of crystal clear streams, healthy salmon and pristine British Columbia back country. A kind and gentle voice praised the incredible environment that Mother Nature has bestowed on this province. One felt a sense of soothing comfort, tinged with pride at having chosen to live in this part of the world.

It was a commercial promoting the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. An ad for a project that is an essential part of what one could argue is the greatest single environmental threat currently facing the planet.

After the initial shock at the over-the-top doublespeak of using our love for nature to promote a pipeline proposal to transport some of the most carbon intensive oil on the planet, I began to wonder who would sell their soul, along with their creative energy, to create a piece of propaganda that would have amazed George Orwell himself.

Somewhere, a group of artists, or at least reasonably creative women and men, had sat in an office discussing how best to convince a skeptical public (polls have shown well over 60 per cent of B.C. residents opposed) on the merits of building a pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the west coast.

Imagine these human beings, not much different from you or me, pitching proposals, exchanging ideas and debating the merits of various creative approaches to ignoring climate science, disregarding the likelihood of breaks in any pipeline, discounting the well-reasoned fear of shipping accidents and completely overlooking the opposition of First Nations whose land the pipeline must cross.

“Let’s sell them on a pipeline by showing pretty pictures of nature,” one of them says. “And use a voice that people trust to brand the pipeline as environmentally friendly.”

“That’s it,” says another. “That’s it exactly. It’s the same as selling beer. If we can convince young men that getting drunk makes them more attractive to women, we can easily use people’s love of nature to sell a pipeline.”

“Exploit the very thing that the pipeline will destroy to sell it, that’s hardcore,” says yet another. “Deviously wicked.”

“I love it,” says the client.

And not one of them feels the least bit guilty for helping to destroy the livability of our planet. Why? Because they are just doing their jobs.

So the commercial is written, produced, directed, location scouted, lighted, costumed, filmed, acted in, edited, catered, etc. and not one of the dozens of people making it feel the least bit guilty for contributing to global warming, because after all, they too are just doing their jobs. Likewise the sales rep at the TV station, the traffic person, the director, master control operator and every other worker from Calgary to Fort Mac to Vancouver who take no responsibility — all are also just doing their jobs.

Am I the only one who is bothered by this? “Just doing my job,” sounds eerily similar to “just following orders,” a soldier’s excuse for committing a war crime. Is this where our economic system’s pursuit of ever-greater profits has led us? The sum of our individual actions is creating an environmental disaster but none of us are responsible?

I’m pretty certain most who work in Fort McMurray understand how destructive what they do is to the environment. I feel confident that the vast majority of creative people involved in selling products that are bad for us understand what they are doing. Most may prefer not to think about it, but they do understand. They believe there’s no choice. Acting like you don’t care is simply what it takes to successfully earn a living.

This is the attitude of people who feel powerless. It is the attitude of a soldier who has learned the negative consequences of ever questioning an order.

Our economic system gives the power to decide most things to a small number of people motivated by greed. Most of us must follow orders if we are to succeed. Our ability to choose is confined to decisions like Coke versus Pepsi. We feel powerless because that is our reality.

To take responsibility requires taking power.

This is the mental itch that won’t go away: How do people who feel powerless take power and build a world with a democratic economic system where we collectively decide what to produce and how, rather than let the profit motive decide all?

We better quickly figure out an answer because all the science tells us it will soon be too late.

(16) Comments

Forward Thinker 2 October 15th 2013 | 7:19 PM

Yep. That was my exact reaction to the commercials. it is true that each cog in the wheel trying to build this pipeline is taking the helpless attitude that if they do not do the job someone else will and they will miss out on the big pay cheque. Cumulatively, though,each little cog has the power to help produce something very destructive, but on its own the cog is not harming anything.

the same is true for those who say they do not like the pipe, but what an they do. Each person taking a stand can do little, but combine all efforts and the pipeline can be stopped.

Ryan Barber October 16th 2013 | 7:07 AM

Thanks for articulating my feelings so well. I find it amazing that 5 seconds into one of these ads with no sound I can tell it's a gateway peice. 

Jeffrey Simpson October 16th 2013 | 9:09 AM

The Republican Party in the USA found that it was very useful to lie about things and to keep repeating the lie because soon it would be accepted as 'truth', they claimed. It has been a very successful tactic in the rapidly collapsing USA and the Harpercons have followed suit. The Enbridge lies are piling up to the point when one wonders if they actually could tell the truth, even at gunpoint; at this stage of the saga they seem to believe everything they do. What a terrible error. Those involved in the TV ads are guilty of wilful blindness and of misleading the public. We hung the WW2 thugs of the Nazi era although they claimed they were just following orders. The judges did not buy that argument. Clearly, as humans, we have a moral and ethical responsibility that trumps orders from headquarters (The PMO's office.) Stand for your environment or wreak havoc on the next generation - those are the choices.

Lorne Craig October 16th 2013 | 11:11 AM

I find it easy to understand the point of view of the professionals involved in the production of this piece. By successfully creating an environment of economic fear, and positioning the issues as environment vs. jobs, the oil lobby has made it appear as though the only choice is to sell one's soul to get a piece of the pie, or starve in the woods. Also, we marketers are very susceptible to believing our own BS. "The safest pipeline ever? Heck, I didn't know that... I guess it's all going to be OK then!"  I do take exception to Engler's theory that "...most who work in Fort McMurray understand how destructive what they do is to the environment" Keeping people busy with hockey games and fast toys prevents a lot of folks from opening uncomfortable lines of inquiry. And I can only imagine that any teacher who brings a culture of environmental curiosity to Ft. Mac Elementary is going to be run out of town on a rail.

Steve McQueen October 16th 2013 | 2:14 PM

I'm sure the author enjoyed typing this on their petroleum-based plastic keyboard almost as much as I enjoyed reading it on my petroleum-based plastic monitor.

john Weriuk October 16th 2013 | 3:15 PM

I have a good friend who lives near Cambie street in Vancouver and will never let me forget a key fact about the Canada Line rapid transit construction: They promised that no section of cut and cover would be open and under construction for more than three months. As I have heard many times, it was a year and a half. Sounds like a pretty big lie to me.

I would not expect Enbridge to be any different from the consortium of interests that built the Canada Line.

Earl Richards October 16th 2013 | 3:15 PM

This advertisement is very ironic, because Enbridge is still cleaning-up its mess in the Kalamazoo River, which occurred over three years ago. It took Enbridge 17 hours to start responding to this spill.

JPierre October 17th 2013 | 12:12 PM

It's those with some element of vision that are challenging the status quo maintained by those with no vision and sustained only by their greed and aspiration to personal profit. And in regard the notion that jobs are sooooo important such as some might say, then here's a response from Alison to those who say: ""Any job beats freeloading off the taxpayers." A job that is not in the best interests of your country is, in effect, freeloading off the taxpayers. Because they are going to have to pay to fix whatever problems your job causes your country." Alison Irvin

JPierre October 17th 2013 | 12:12 PM

[quote=Steve McQueen] "I'm sure the author enjoyed typing this on their petroleum-based plastic keyboard almost as much as I enjoyed reading it on my petroleum-based plastic monitor."

OK, for some I guess the 'lights' are still off and no one is 'home' - that's understandable. You see some people have 'vision' and some just don't. Those who have some degree of vision understand that we cannot just flick the switch off. Those with no 'vision' whatsoever always present the argument as you have - going from day to night at the flick of a switch. We must put pressure on the fossil fuel industry and governments to invest more in energy alternatives, and minimize extraction of fuels that most severely impact our environment.

David R October 17th 2013 | 8:20 PM

All this lip service to climate/enviro concerns, yet we're still fixated on moving carbon from the ground to the atmosphere as fast as possible.

I've long given up trying to make sense of it.

At some point we're going to have to live without carbon fuels.  Hopefully while living is still an option.

David R October 17th 2013 | 8:20 PM

You can choose to use plastic and still believe there are better ways to propel transit and heat our homes.  It doesn't have to be all or nothing.

[quote=Steve McQueen]

I'm sure the author enjoyed typing this on their petroleum-based plastic keyboard almost as much as I enjoyed reading it on my petroleum-based plastic monitor.


keith cummings October 17th 2013 | 8:20 PM

those that want Enbridge's pipelines see money in their pockets, lower gas bills and a higher standard of living for Canadians. Those that oppose Enbridge see a massive ecological disaster mess that our children and their children will curse us for being so stupid. Our good land and clean water for the future generations is better than paper money.

steveston78 October 21st 2013 | 1:13 PM

Wow, if you're making an analogy involving communication industry workers and concentration camp guards, then I've just read my last column of yours. Ever.

Leanne October 30th 2013 | 1:13 PM
Earl Richards wrote:

This advertisement is very ironic, because Enbridge is still cleaning-up its mess in the Kalamazoo River, which occurred over three years ago. It took Enbridge 17 hours to start responding to this spill.

They weren't purposefully delaying their response, that's how long it took for them to recognize that the leak was present. That error is also the sole purpose why the leak was so severe--leaks happen all the time, but if an operator can quickly pick up on it and close a valve, the impact is minimal.

Ever since that spill in Michigan, Enbridge has completely done a 180 and completlely overhauled their leak detection/response technologies and upped their pipeline specifications. I don't understand why people are being so harsh on the company, the  oil spills that occur in Canada are NOWHERE near the scale that happen in other countries around the world. If you have issues with oil companies, take it out on the oil companies, not the pipeline companies, it would be more effective. Whether or not this project goes forward, Enbridge still operates the largest pipeline network in the world, and it's not going anywhere.

Those so-called "polls" which show a majority opposition to the pipeline were discredited a long time ago. I happen to fully support the project and I think Enbridge has come a long way in the past 2 years.

Danny November 8th 2013 | 6:06 AM
Steve McQueen wrote:

I'm sure the author enjoyed typing this on their petroleum-based plastic keyboard almost as much as I enjoyed reading it on my petroleum-based plastic monitor.

The issue lies with our relentless push to suck oil and gas out of the ground to use them for incredibly unsustainable products, such as transportation, heating and electrical production. There are definitely many products that use plastics that could be rethought and never even built, but the fact your computer is made of plastic doesn't render it to global warming CO2 in the atmosphere. You can recycle plastics and use them again, it's only the energy that is used to create and recycle them that would potentially be harming, if it was to be powered by oil or gas.

The argument that because we use oil and gas makes us a hypocrite is pigeon holding people into making one decision for the rest of their lives. There is no way we could possibly not use oil or gas in the world we live in. We need people to make a collective choice to move away from oil and gas so we can live with healthier choices for everyone. I'm starting with growing my own year round garden. Less packaging and transportation required to get food to my stomach, plus I will learn a little about how life works, rather than insulting it with ignorance.



eddie March 21st 2014 | 3:15 PM

What's alarming about this piece and something that only one reader has had the good sense to point out is how outlandish, offensive and ultimately reductive Gary Langer's portrayal of people working in the modern marketing, communications and advertising fields are. Drawing comparisons to goose-stepping Nazis or inventing closed door scenarios where "reasonably creative" people sit around dreaming up ways to hoodwink Canadians into buying into the enviro-friendly pipeline fallacy is such a retrograde way of seeing communications professionals in this century. Not to mention how Mr.Langer sees joe public, as a bunch of saps who are so easily persuaded that all it takes is one TV commercial to convince them of the virtues of the pipeline. What modern communications professionals know - Mr.Langer excluded - is that a TV commercial is but one touchpoint on a vast media spectrum. By it's very nature it's crafted to be tight, simple and to the point. Nuanced discussion is promoted online where interactivity is enabled. Enbridge and the Northern Gateway apologists have a right to be heard, communications pros have the right to help them be heard. At the end of the day its up to you to move beyond the passivity that is absorbing TV to educate yourself and figure out where you stand on an issue. After all, it's a little more important than deciding whether you want a Pepsi or a Coke.