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9 June 2010
MADISON AVENUE -- In the face of mile-deep work against the historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, British Petroleum faces a daunting task: make a sufficiently sappy case to win over the fickle American people.
- Vioxx was a giant leap beyond previous painkillers--but not perfect. When it caused several deaths, developer Merck was enmeshed in lawsuits.
- Trans-fats were a high-tech health improvement over saturated fats, but not perfect either. Now, Americans ignore the hokey health claims on packaged food--provided it's free of killer trans-fats. They will snap up a product even if it reverts to saturated fats.
- And a current lawsuit faults Mazda for not including in a 1993 car the shoulder harnesses that would be the law when a passenger died in it thirteen years later.
The implication for the giant corporation is clear: Even though oil routinely seeps up from the ocean floor into seawater, limiting the spill to a trickle will not be good enough. A steroid-laced EPA and an anti-business public will require that the seal be perfect.
British Petroleum took public-relations baby-steps even before blowing up its oil rig: It changed its name to the generic BP and replaced the heraldic shield logo with an abstract sunflower. Aw, that's swell. "Daddy, let's go over there, their gas comes from flowers." BP is now regarded as more American than, well, Citgo.
In a new TV ad campaign, chief executive Tony Hayward touts BP's efforts to stop the spill and mitigate on-shore damage. The only problem left is his annoying, lilting accent, which Americans only hear during public service announcements to eat more roughage; also from rock stars, and only when they're not singing but at awards banquets insulting Bush. Mr. Hayward promises that his corporation will spare no expense to return the dirt-poor Gulf coast to eco-perfection.
"And we haven't slept a bloody wink at all," Mr. Hayward confirms in the advert.
Nevertheless, he has okayed a PR disaster: A stickcam, one mile down, giving Americans "gavel-to-gavel coverage" of the crude oil belching forth, 24/7. It showed the jamming of the saw, sent to cut the fateful pipe, to a nation that operates Skil saws just for fun every weekend. And if it reveals the inevitable odd drip of oil out of the repaired joints, a fickle nation, itself putting off the call to the plumber, will insist that BP's job is not done. Another $12,000 million, please--It won't drive up gas prices.
Meanwhile, President Obama is girding for mud-wrestling battle in the national pablum. On Tuesday, he disclosed on the Today Show that the real reason he consults with Gulf experts is "so I know whose ass to kick." Uncouth, perhaps; even unconstitutional; but undoubtably the coolest you can get without having oral sex with a White House intern and getting away with it. And on this side of the oily pond, that is all that matters.