BP has spent more than £800,000 on social media influence ads in the UK this year that champion the company’s investments in green energy, it can be revealed.
On Tuesday, BP announced a 14-year high profit of £7bn for the second quarter of this year. In the previous eight days, the company paid about £570,000 to Facebook and Instagram for influence ads that reached tens of millions of viewers in the UK.
“These ads are intended to create a clean warm glow about the companies concerned, giving them more social licence to operate,” said Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK.
The influence ads, which also emphasise BP’s contributions to UK energy security, began two days after Labour proposed a windfall 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 levy” on 26 May, the investigation by Eco-Bot.Net and the Guardian found. “Backing Britain: delivering homegrown energy” read many of the ads in green script across a map of the UK.
“Corporate interests have used advertising for many years to improve their reputation. And when it comes to corporate taxes, reputation matters to politicians,” said Laura Edelson, a researcher in online political communication at New York University.
The influence ads promote BP’s plan to “transition to net zero” by gradually reducing oil and gas production and investing more in “low carbon” and renewable energy sources.
“BP are presenting themselves as offering green solutions that are good for the UK, but these investments are dwarfed by how much money they’re funnelling into fossil fuels,” said Parr. “They’re doing this while making record profits and as millions of UK households are being pushed into fuel poverty.”
BP has some of the more ambitious energy transition plans among oil and gas majors, but an analysis by Oil Change International in May found that the sector’s plans are far from enough to restrict global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – the goal outlined in the Paris agreement.
“The green investments they describe represent only a minor portion of the current energy production and investment behaviour,” said Gregory Trencher, who researches energy policy and sustainability transitions at Kyoto University. “In that sense the ads are misleading.”
“It’s like somebody who is still in the process of changing to a healthy diet but who asks to be praised ahead of time. 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 spokesperson for BP said: “The UK is a microcosm of our strategy, and we are investing heavily here. Our adverts highlight the specifics, range and scale of the things we plan to do here – including offshore wind, North Sea oil and gas, hydrogen and carbon capture, and EV charging.”
Shell, which announced record profits last month, has also paid Meta, parent company to Facebook and Instagram, to run dozens of influence 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 was paying for the ad.
“Better transparency to users, for example, who’s paying to put that information in front of them, helps them to put what they’re seeing in context,” said Edelson, who is also an adviser to the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a self-appointed activist group which holds Facebook’s oversight board to account.
Information about spending and reach are only disclosed on Meta’s ad library for social issue and political ads, and only these ads remain visible in the library after they have ended.
The Shell ads investigated were ultimately taken down by Meta for breaking company policy, but the investigation found dozens more similar ads had been running without a disclaimer for more than a month, seemingly undetected by Meta’s moderation process.
A Shell spokesperson said: “Shell aims for clarity, transparency and trust in all of our communications. The disclaimer policy that is applied on Meta advertising is something that Shell fully supports.
“Initial enquiries suggest that the disclaimer was, in error, not applied to some recent Shell content, and we are investigating this with our media buying agency. We have also instructed them to take immediate remedial action.”
A Meta spokesperson said: “We require all advertisers running ads about social issues, including those about environmental topics to include a ‘paid for by’ disclaimer. Our enforcement is not perfect, but we’re always working to strengthen and improve our processes.”
Eco-Bot.Net scrapes databases of social media advertising paid for by some of the world’s most polluting companies. The ads are then analysed by journalists and researchers.
Meta offers to put ads in front of the eyes of specific “custom audiences” based on the detailed profiles of users they build up. Audiences are segmented according to age, gender, geographic location, income and many other kinds of personal data in a practice called “microtargeting”.
Analysis found that most of BP’s UK-targeted ads this year reached viewers aged between 25 and 44 years old, but a more granular 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.