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Extreme makeover: Athabasca edition Add to ...

Canada has staked its future on the oil sands. In November, Report on Business magazine together with Thomson Reuters examine what that means both at home and abroad. Read more from the issue at tgam.ca/oil.

It could be a meadow in the Garden of Eden: yellow and pink wildflowers, spruce and aspen trees, fat bumblebees nuzzling buttercups, and green, so much green. A man in a hard hat and reflector vest strolls amid the foliage in Hallmark soft-focus, declaring with wonder and a kind of paternal love: “You have this beauty returning to the landscape.”

There is abundant beauty here, in the blossoming genre of oil sands ads, including this 30-second spot from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). Tall firs and majestic Rockies, brought to you by Suncor. A mother cradling her newborn after a bath warmed by Enbridge-piped oil. Sun dappling a young boy and his toy airplane (Cenovus).

In the new energy economy, doing well is not enough; you must be seen to be doing good. Which is why Alberta roughnecks lately have been working feverishly to prove they care about more than just money and mining and bitumen. “We want to build trust with Canadians,” says Sue Van Aalst, the general manager of corporate communications for Suncor, whose upbeat campaign, “What Yes Can Do,” is now in its second year. “We want to be seen as a company that connects and demonstrates a commitment to the triple bottom-line: social well-being, economic prosperity and a healthy environment.”

Trust of the energy industry is in short supply. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global report measuring the public’s attitude toward business and government, only 43% of Canadians in 2014 said they trusted the oil sector; 54% said there is not enough regulation of the industry.

But that’s what happens when migrating ducks die in tailings ponds and boreal forests are strip-mined into monochromatic moonscapes. “There’s that big visual that is so impactful,” acknowledges Reg Curren, a spokesperson for Cenovus. “There’s no way around it.” The visuals go flying around the globe every time Neil Young or Leonardo DiCaprio visits Fort McMurray, or when hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets of Manhattan for a climate change protest, or New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman slams “the dirtiest extraction of the dirtiest crude from tar sands in Canada’s far north.”

A few years ago, the industry realized that it needed to counter those images if it wanted to keep exporting Alberta crude through neighbouring provinces. So, in the spring of 2010, CAPP launched “Oil Sands Today,” a multimillion-dollar branding effort trumpeting the industry’s deep connections to businesses and people across the country. It learned to talk like a real person on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; sponsored Walrus magazine panels for the intelligentsia; and fanned out to local community organizations with money and good cheer.

Meanwhile, the Harper government provided air cover, spending an estimated $16.5 million on its “Economic Action Plan” ads touting the country’s “responsible resource development.”

Reading from the same songbook, individual companies added their unique voices to the sweet-singing chorus. In the fall of 2010, Cenovus—then newly spun off from EnCana—introduced itself to Canadians in an ad campaign bursting with wonder and possibility but nary a drop of oil. That effort, dubbed “More Than Fuel,” boasted of 21st-century innovations—ultrasound machines, touch-screen tablets, artificial limbs—that contain petrochemicals. The company ran spots in cinemas and during prime-time TV, along with a blanket of print ads in Chatelaine, Today’s Parent and Reader’s Digest aimed at Canadian women.

Its follow-up campaign, “A Different Oil Sands,” focused on the fact that Cenovus drills rather than mines for its oil: The dominant image is of a refinery nestled in an Alberta forest, rather than heavy haulers thundering across a post-apocalyptic landscape. A time-lapse video on the Cenovus website showed a parade of adorable woodland creatures—moose, wolves, bears, a mother deer and her fawn—blithely wandering around the company’s Christina Lake and Foster Creek operations. “We wanted to make sure we were putting a different kind of image into people’s minds,” says Liz Hannah, the vice-president of communications and reputation management for Cenovus. “That really is the future of the oil sands.”

Its 2012 campaign “Canadian Ideas at Work” built on that notion, positioning the company’s steam-assisted gravity drainage technique within a Canadian tradition of innovation and frontier exploration, from the railway to the Canadarm. “Canada: It’s spelled with a ‘can,’ not a ‘cannot,’” declares a voiceover, as orchestral strings swell our chests with pride.

The Canadian Oil Sands Industry Alliance, a trade group with 13 members that represent roughly 90% of all oil sands production, has also trumpeted the sector’s innovations through a series of advertorials.

If trust is the goal, it’s no surprise the companies are positioning themselves as the Apple of the Athabasca: Edelman’s 2014 Trust Barometer recommended the sector leverage the so-called trust halo of related industries, including automotive (trusted by 70%) and technology (79%).

The companies are also leaning on another pillar of Edelman’s findings: that people trust employees as sources of information more than they do CEOs or academics. (Least trusted of all? Official spokespeople.) That’s why a video in Cenovus’s current campaign, “More2TheStory,” features a voiceover by an employee (or an actor playing an employee) who says he and his co-workers aren’t really driven by profit: “It’s about being part of something that helps raise the standard of living around the world.”

Suncor’s “What Yes Can Do” campaign taps into the same Upworthy positivity, the innate human desire to embrace the audacity of hope (rather than scramble your brain trying to process reams of greenhouse gas emissions data). It showcases Suncor staff, full of brawny optimism and brainy innovation, as they crack codes in the lab, plant trees at an old mining site and stare resolutely back at the viewer. With a heroic piano soundtrack that sounds like Vancouver 2010, the TV spots conclude with that tic of modern marketing: an invitation for a dialogue. “This conversation brought to you by Suncor,” the screen reads.

“I think ‘conversation’ is a really important thing for us to have,” says Suncor’s Van Aalst. “The challenges of responsible energy development are not something that belong just to us. It’s something all Canadians should be participating in a conversation on.”

Conversations, though, are hard to control. As that Suncor spot plays on YouTube, a series of critical videos call out from the right-hand margin, begging to be clicked. “Canada’s Tar Sands: Most Destructive on Earth?” asks one. “See What Yes Is Doing,” urges another, a remix of Suncor’s own spot with revolting shots of strip mining and oil-slicked ducks, and a stentorian voiceover mocking energy companies’ apparent unwillingness to adopt more progressive practices.

On Cenovus’s More2TheStory.com site, the comments range from praise to withering attacks. And the company’s “spelled with a ‘can,’ not a ‘cannot’” ad may have been right out of the Tim Hortons Effective Advertising Playbook (flatter, inspire, appeal to patriotism), but it felt like a stretch and was greeted by laughter when it played in cinemas.

The industry says it is taking all of this in stride. “It’s evident they care about the same things we deeply care about,” says Van Aalst of the critics. “If our campaign means that we’ll have a conversation with people that we wouldn’t normally have a conversation with about responsible energy development, then that’s great. That’s what we want to happen.”

Even Neil Young?

“Absolutely.”

The campaigns appear to be having an effect: Cenovus says that 47% of Canadians are now in favour of “responsible development of the oil sands.” But there are still reasons for concern: Cenovus’s Hannah says one-quarter of those polled feel they don’t know enough to have an opinion. “With all the coverage that the oil sands is getting, we’re not really educating Canadians,” she says. “We’re not really giving them assurances about how oil companies are doing whatever they can to be as responsible as possible.”

Critics see it differently. “The overall message from the ads is, There’s an economic benefit, and technology will solve the environmental problems,” notes Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada. “But this is an actual pollution problem, not a public relations problem.”

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