This week marks the 5th anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. The company continues to be hounded by the legal fallout, including criminal convictions, and it is desperate to do whatever it can to cleanse its public image. This is especially challenging in the face of intense criticism globally from the fossil fuel divestment groups like 350.org, the #keepitintheground campaign and the movement to end oil sponsorship of the arts.
One of BP’s PR techniques to weather the Deepwater Horizon backlash is ‘Artwash’ — the title of my book which has been published on the same day as the anniversary. By sponsoring the likes of Tate and British Museum, as well as the Olympics, BP hopes to achieve a guise of social acceptability, or what oil PR specialists would call ‘social licence to operate’. But over the same period since the disaster, a multitude of voices have risen up to criticise cultural institutions for associating themselves with BP.
This has happened hand in hand with the call for universities, religious institutions and pension funds to divest from fossil fuels entirely. As 350.org founder Bill McKibben notes, “the odds of bankrupting Exxon are pretty small, but I think the odds of politically bankrupting them are higher.” Criticism of arts sponsorship deals has exactly the same effect — it demonstrates the decreasing levels of social acceptability companies like BP now have. Desmond Tutu has called on both the finance and cultural sectors to separate themselves from the oil industry as part of an “apartheid-style boycott” as the only just response to climate change.