BP's battered brand draws consumer opposition

Activists are demonstrating at gas stations, drumming up support on social networks--with little or no effect on the oil giant's revenues.

3 min read

U.S. consumers are venting frustration over the BP oil spill, demonstrating at gas stations and corporate offices, drumming up support on Facebook, and waging a mock public relations campaign on Twitter.

But their opposition to BP's handling of the crisis has yet to achieve critical mass, and any attempt to dissuade customers from fueling their cars with BP is likely to hurt the small business owners who run the stations with little or no effect on the British oil giant's revenues.

Most Americans--7 out of 10--say BP has done a poor or only fair job in handling the April 20 well blowout and spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Pew Research Center, which tracks public opinion. The Obama administration got slightly better marks, with 57 percent rating the government's response poor or only fair.

In light of this public displeasure, BP may have trouble charging a premium price at the pump for its products, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the independent New Jersey-based Oil Price Information Service.

In the Gulf, struggling with the oil disaster (photos)

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"We are starting to see some impact so far, and a percent of decline or two can have a dramatic impact," Kloza said by phone. "Unfortunately, it has an impact on what you might say are the victims: the marketers and the dealers that made commitments to fly the BP flag."

BP's petroleum products can be sold at other outlets under other brand names, making a consumer boycott tough to achieve. In any case, he said, price is the biggest factor determining where customers buy automotive fuel.

Mother Teresa brand
Customers would probably patronize gas stations with lower prices than pay more for gas from a "Mother Teresa" brand.

Several U.S. groups, including the consumer watchdog Public Citizen and Vermont-based Democracy for America, have called for a BP boycott, but historically, energy boycotts have had minimal impact on the parent companies' revenues. Efforts to boycott Exxon after the 1989 Valdez spill off Alaska and a boycott of Citgo, which is owned by Venezuelan interests linked to President Hugo Chavez, had little effect, Kloza said.

Seize BP, a campaign aimed at getting the U.S. government to seize BP's assets and redistribute them to those damaged by the spill, plans a week of demonstrations in all 50 states at gas stations and BP offices.

"As this continues and BP continues to spend money on a clean-up effort which is failing, we think they will declare bankruptcy and...then nobody will be compensated," said Ian Thompson, a Los Angeles organizer for the campaign. "Which is why we're calling for a seizure of their assets to be put into a trust administered by the people affected in the region."

The movement to seize BP's assets is gaining ground on Facebook, where at least five groups with a total of over 8,000 members were pushing this cause as of Thursday.

Anger and frustration
There is also a spoof Twitter feed, BPGlobalPR, that purports to be the oil company's online persona. The author of the often hilarious tweets identifies himself as Leroy Stick and said in an online post on Wednesday: "I started BPGlobalPR because the oil spill had been going on for almost a month and all BP had to offer were bull**** PR statements."

The satirical feed has more than 114,000 followers, compared to the official BPAmerica feed, which had less than 10,000 on Thursday.

The fake feed has donated $10,000 to the Gulf Restoration Network from the sale of T-shirts emblazoned with an oil-smudged BP logo and the words "bp cares."

A survey of recent tweets involving the term "oil spill" comes up with mostly news stories, along with comments on recent developments, including chatter about the involvement of filmmaker James Cameron in the well-plugging effort.

Karen North, director of the Annenberg Online Communities program at the University of Southern California, said she saw small online efforts but little sign of a major movement.

"People are posting their anger and frustration on their own personal newsfeeds, but in terms of people coming together as part of a collective effort, if its there I haven't seen that much of it, and that might be because people aren't sure what the right bandwagon is to join," North said in an interview.

Kloza, the oil analyst, said: "If people are serious about demonstrating or showing their indignant, they can divest themselves of investments, and maybe think about using a little bit less fuel, because there's really no downside in that."