Ezra Levant can pinpoint the precise moment he decided that the Alberta oil sands needed an image makeover.
While attending a writer’s conference in Ottawa in 2009 to promote his book Shakedown, the conservative pundit agreed at the last minute to participate in a panel on the oil sands -- and says it became immediately apparent that he was the designated “punching bag” in the discussion.
“If anything, I made the people in that room angrier, and that confused me at first, because I think I’m a persuasive person,” Levant, who now hosts Sun News Network’s The Source, told HuffPost Canada. “I reflected on that failure, and I realized that I was using a vocabulary that defeated me. I was not speaking in a way that respected the values of my audience.”
So Levant, who describes himself as a “right-wing guy from Alberta,” started trying to think like those on the opposite end of the political spectrum. The result was the birth of “ethical oil” -- and a rebranding campaign that is increasingly gaining traction.
Since Levant’s book by the same title was published last September, the term “ethical oil” has become the centrepiece of a new application for a classic marketing strategy. After being added to the Conservative political lexicon, the slogan is slowly beginning to creep into the public discourse. And like other attempts by industry and advocacy groups to use value judgments to alter public opinion, it has the potential to change the way we think about Canadian oil.
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According to Darren Barefoot of the Vancouver-based Internet market research firm Capulet Communications, the effort to popularize ethical oil is an attempt to win the all-important war of words.
“In any debate, various parties attempt to establish the lead position in [a consumer’s] mind,” he says. “To own that kind of vibe by setting the language of the conversation, you have a huge advantage.”
As such, Levant’s attempt to popularize “ethical oil” seeks to change the very nature of the conversation.
As Levant explains, rather than countering traditional anti-oil sands arguments, which he says typically compare Alberta oil to some kind of “fantasy fuel that hasn’t been invented yet,” he has endeavoured to position Canadian oil as the ethical alternative to the so-called “conflict oil” he says is produced in countries like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a reminder that Canada, we’re the boy scouts of the world. We’re the gentlest country of the world, but the world is full of bastards,” he says.
And according to Mike Mulvey, an associate marketing professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, it’s also a tried-and-true marketing tactic.
“Strategically, the use of ethical distinctions attempt[s] to [persuade] customers to do business with you rather than competitors,” Mulvey told The Huffington Post Canada in an e-mail.
Mulvey puts ethical oil in the same category as campaigns like “clean coal” and “fair-trade coffee,” in which producers “attempt to create distinctions to establish differences in previously uniform, undifferentiated product categories.”
This ethical distinction has been made clearer still in recent days with a series of hard-hitting ads published on EthicalOil.org, the blog Levant established to promote his oil sands book.
Designed by Alykhan Velshi, the former Conservative communications staffer who has been running the blog since early June, the ads use stark imagery to position ethical oil as the alternative to “forced labour,” “persecution” and “women stoned to death.”
As Velshi sees it, the blog, which features posts that take aim at anti-oil sands arguments, and includes a Paypal button for donations, is very much a “grassroots effort.”
“I would like EthicalOil.org to be a kind of pro-oil sands version of Greenpeace -- sort of the Greenpeace of the other side,” explains Velshi, who says he would like to forward the cause with “publicity stunts” and billboards.
But according to Barefoot, establishing real grassroots credentials -- the key to truly influencing public opinion -- is easier said than done.
“I don’t think they’ve got a message that’s resonating with millions of Canadians yet. Maybe it will, but they’re not there yet,” he says.
In the meantime, however, the campaign does appear to be making strides.
After receiving the tacit endorsement of Environment Minister Peter Kent and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (in January, both described Canadian oil as “ethical”), the online ads have vaulted “ethical oil” into the headlines of media outlets across the country.
“Its rhetoric is crude, and its visuals derivative...but EthicalOil.org’s campaign is an effective and overdue response to the grossly distorted slurs,” asserted The Globe and Mail in a recent editorial. “EthicalOil.org’s ads should be viewed for what they are: a welcome effort to level the field.”
All of which suggests that when it comes to winning over hearts and minds, a solid catch phrase never hurts.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa as the "Tefler School of Management." The Huffington Post regrets the error.