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The representation of culture in legitimation advertising is often so decontextualized that only micro-strands of significance appear. Shell Oil offers us images of a undisturbed natural environment and indigenous people, but no further clues as to who these people are or where they exist. Perhaps all we might conclude is that there are fossil fuels located beneath the surface of their land. Culture is revealed minimally as Otherness-brown skinned people living in thatched houses. The testimonial is used to express the corporations relation to Nature and Others.


Sign Formulas & Branding
Signifying Clusters
Structural Frames

Not so long ago I'd be considered an incurable romantic.

Cargill, T.Rowe Price, Philip Morris, SAP, and many other corporations use women as spokespersons for their corporation. They travel into Third World areas bringing aid to marginalized peoples. More importantly they express deep felt concern for both Nature and other peoples. They also exhibit an autonomy and adventuresomeness that's played out throughout the narrative of the commercial.

Here, Shell uses a stereotypical gender association, the connection between female and romanticism, to convey concern for environment.

Male voice-over: This woman is trying to prevent the fragile environment from being destroyed by the search for oil and gas

The voice-over constructs the women as an environmental activist. The image mimics Greenpeace's use of motorized rafts to harass oil rigs and whaling boats.

Edited between images of big rigs and a pristine natural setting is a close-up of woman's face displaying the look of concern. She is associated with environmentalism and we are told that she desires to preserve it. This editing sequence is repeated several times throughout the commercial. The look of concern serves as a visual testimonial supporting Shell's voice-over construction of this character. Keep in mind that at this point in the narrative we don't know that this woman works for Shell.

Male voice-over: She wants to preserve the natural beauty of the area

In No Logo Naomi Klein highlights two controversies in which Shell became embroiled. In 1995 Shell attempted to dispose of Brent Spar, an obsolete oil storage platform, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Scotland. After numerous protests spurred on by Greenpeace, Shell backed down. The second incident involved Shell's exploitation of Ogoni land in Nigeria and its support of a military regime that allegedly killed and tortured thousands of Ogoni people including Ken Saro-Wiwa, writer, Nobel prize nominee, and leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. Klein writes,

"Shell's mistreatment of Ogoni land is both an environmental and a social issue, because natural resource companies are notorious for lowering their standards when they drill and mine in the Third World. Shell's opponents readily draw parallels between the company's actions in Nigeria, its history of collaborating with the former apartheid government in South Africa, its ongoing presence in the Timor Gap in Indonesian-occupied East Timor and its violent clashes with the Nahua people in the Peruvian Amazon-as well as its standoff with the U'wa people of the Colombian Andes, who threatened in January of 1997 to commit mass suicide if Shell went ahead with their drilling plans." (1999, 384-5)

Culture is constructed as a small village of thatched huts composed of women and children. It is completely deterritorialized. After watching this commercial could you locate it? Who are these people? Ambiguity eliminates socio-historical grounding and specific criticism that might be directed at Shell.

Male voice-over: And protect the local culture

now and for generations to come

We believe it's possible to provide the energy the planet needs without ignoring the needs of the planet.

Advertising has always been constructed out of aphoristic double talk. The statement is so over-generalized that it literally means nothing. What is important is how it is delivered. As long as the voice enunciating the statement displays a vibrant authenticity, the statement although lacking historical meaning has credibility. Testimony is designed to enhance credibilty.

Male voice-over: In light of this she is not at war with the oil company.

She is the oil company.

After establishing our relationship with this young women we learn that she is not an environmental activist but a company employee. Actually she is not only an employee but also a metonym of Shell itself. "She is the oil company." It is only after we have been taken in by the story do we finally see the Shell logo and become aware of the real storyteller.

Here we learn that she is not "at war with the company" that is, Shell itself is now an environmental activist.

Frances Abbots-Guardiola is a geologist with Shell.

Adding credibility to the testimonial we learn that the woman is not an actress but a geologist who works for Shell who is guided by a preservationist philosophy. But she is an actress in this commercial who is directed to act. And even though the commercial uses a mix of hyperreal codes such as a jerky camera and discontinuous editing to connote authenticity, the commercial has been staged. The geologist/actress is directed to look concerned. She has been given her lines and directed to speak them. And she has been constructed out of visual associations, an uplifting musical score, and a voice-over.

Her job is to get at the riches below the earth without destroying those above it.

Romantic? Certainly. Incurable? Let's hope so.

Count on Shell

The shell opens up to reveal an illuminated Shell logo of this politically enlightened company. Its tagline expresses commitment. But to what? The aphorism is left uncompleted.

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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey