Washed Up (Up, Down, Down, Left, Right) Shell and the Art of 'Gameswashing'
Following the emergence of ‘Brandwashing’ campaigns, companies like Shell are now trying to 'Gameswash' their tarnished image
By Harry Lang
First, there was ‘Sportswashing’ - the use of professional sports as part of an ethically unsound Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) strategy to misdirect the public’s attention away from nefarious behaviours and enhance a government, entity or brand’s reputation by wedding itself to a famous sporting spectacle.
One of the first, and still the best example of sport washing gone wrong was the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, when Hitler’s Nazi Germany invited celebrated black speed merchant Jessie Owens to compete, seemingly in the belief that he’d be trounced in the hundred metres race by the master race.
In a turn of events that the word ‘schadenfreude’ could have been invented for (equally proving eugenics wasn’t only psychotically bonkers but also entirely redundant) Owens won four gold medals in the 100 metres, long jump, 200 metres, and 4 by 100 metre relay.
It was a sliver of levity in otherwise dark days - ‘höchste-schadenfreude’, if you will - the ultimate pleasure being briefly derived from Hitler’s total cock up.
These days, sports marketing is an altogether slicker, more data-driven and media-astute affair, so we’re treated to the likes of the F1 in Bahrain and Saudi-backed LIV golf tour, in which black marks of poor humanitarian behaviour are scoured from the Whiteboard of history with rolls of hundred Dollar bills. Sadly for all concerned, it seems to be working.
‘Greenwashing’ operates in a similar guise and is articulated when an organisation spends more time and cash making itself look planet friendly than in actually reducing its environmental impact.
There are loads of Greenwashers out there, and some even appear to have decent intent, but the fact remains that the majority remain inherently self-serving whilst patting themselves on the back with PR stories about their good deeds. Earth.org has compiled a handy list of some of the worst Greenwashing offenders, which could sadly be overlaid onto a chart of the world’s most influential companies, so there’s a long way to go until doing actual good for the environment is seen as good business.
Similarly, ‘Wokewashing’ is when brands use social justice in their marketing activities to hone a more cosy image of themselves whilst taking no discernible social action in the process.
My personal Wokewashing favourite was conceived in 2019 by confectionery behemoth Cadbury (now owned by corporate glutton Mondelez International). They crafted chocolate bars with dark, blended, milk and white chocolate segments to mark India’s Independence Day. The ‘Unity Bar’ went down like a sack of shit, leading to a now famous Twitter comment:-
“& just like that… Cadbury’s ended racism”
On a product marketing level alone, Cadbury should’ve heeded the words of Steve Biko before adding white chocolate to the end of the Unity Bar. When speaking about white people in response to a derogatory slur made by a judge, he famously retorted:-
"Why do you call yourself white, when you are actually pink?"
Which brings us, down the murky sink hole of post-spill detritus, to Shell.
In the hierarchical scale of Fundamentally Undesirable Brands Actively Ruining Earth (FUBARE for short), Shell must be challenging for the medals.
Alongside other petrochemical entities, they run hot when it comes to massive companies who have the best chance of irredeemably destroying the planet. Which has made it a very rich company indeed.
Like Big Tobacco before it, a diminished ability to make up false stuff when marketing its products means Shell has a huge slush fund leftover to focus on fluffy, perception-altering brand campaigns, which is why they coated themselves in Dollar bills and dove headfirst into the burgeoning world of computer games.
As Coke (a top 10 washer in their own right) rightfully asserted, children are ‘...the future of the world ’ and hundreds of millions of kids love to play games every day, many of them choosing Fortnite.
So Shell partnered with Fortnite map creators to develop “Shell Ultimate Road Trips”, an in-game world featuring six different areas to explore in the car of your choice. In the midst of these worlds, players find a solitary Shell petrol station (if you;re paying for it, you may as well play the role of ‘saviour’).
The campaign (purposefully pivoting Shell back into fossil fuels and away from more future-proof, but less profitable clean energy sources) promotes its new V-Power NiTRO+ product using numerous influencers and creators on TikTok, Twitch and YouTube to sell their message to the game’s 231 million+ monthly active players.
“Shell V-Power® NiTRO+ Premium gasoline removes up to 100% of performance-robbing deposits to rejuvenate your engine’s performance” must be a bit of a mouthful to shoehorn into your Twitch stream, but these creators are a talented and resourceful bunch, especially when they’re paid well.
So ‘Gameswashing’ is now a thing, beating my preferred designation ‘Wash Up (Up, Down, Down, Left, Right)’ by means of the latter being more fun but impractically clunky) and Shell have sunk its Vampiric fangs into Fortnite like a fly on a turd.
Luckily, today’s game playing teens are as cynical as they are savvy, seeing Shell’s Gameswashing efforts for the fickle attempts of PR self-fluffery they are, as neatly summarised by one Reddit user:-
“Shell Oil - the stuff kids go for”
Shell Fortnite gameswashing campaign
On 11th June 2023, the latest in a long succession of oil spills attributed to Shell facilities burst into the Okulu River in Nigeria. More than 13,500 residents from the Ogale and Bille communities in the Niger Delta have filed claims against Shell asking that the company clean up spills which according to AP News “...have wrecked their livelihoods, poisoned their wells, and polluted their land and water, which means they can no longer farm or fish”.
This kind of eco-disaster isn’t exactly new news to Shell, and will take more than a few creators to sweep under the carpet.
Fellow ocean-spoiling oil spillers Esso have pointed their misdirection drills towards people’s wallets instead, crafting their ‘Thoughtful Driving’ campaign in May of this year to help people “...drive less and help them save fuel”. Let’s call this codswallop from earth sucking eco-vampire Exxon Mobil ‘Valuewashing’ to continue the theme. After all, the best way to help out their struggling customers in these harsh socio-economic times might just have been to hand back a smidgen of its $56 Billion profit from fuel-poverty-stricken 2022…
So there you have it - if there’s a cause out there to be exploited, or an industry ripe for corporate intercourse, it’s either already happened or it’s in the post.
One day, brands might realise that a holistic, truthful and long-term intent to make things better via a genuine ESG strategy would actually be a more powerful - and ultimately more profitable - marketing lever to pull but sadly, for the majority of industries, that hasn’t happened yet.
In the meantime, these PR-driven washing exercises do nothing but inflate corporate pockets and deflect attention away from where the real issues lie.