ExxonMobil hated an issue ad so much, its lawyers fired off a cease and desist letter to successfully stop Comcast from airing it before and after President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night.
The ad, "Exxon Hates Your Children" (see it below), is part of a campaign by a trio of organizations—Oil Change International, Environmental Action and The Other 98%—that collectively seeks to convince lawmakers to eliminate $10 billion in fossil fuel subsidies.
Although the ad ran previously via Comcast cable on MSNBC in Washington, D.C., New York and Denver, the letter from ExxonMobil caused Comcast to think twice about running it again, this time in Houston Tuesday night on the Fox News channel.
"The advertisement is offensive, nonsensical and fails to meet any basic standard of accuracy, so we requested that the broadcast network reconsider airing it," said an Exxon representative.
It's not hard to see why Exxon demanded the ad pulled. The scathing 30-second ad mockingly pretends to be from Exxon itself. A mild-mannered man in a suit, posing as an ExxonMobil executive, looks straight into the camera and says: "Here at Exxon, we hate your children (against a background of environmental horrors and kids breathing through oxygen masks). We all know the climate crisis will rip their world apart. But we don't care. Because it's making us rich. That's right. Every year Congress gives the fossil fuel industry over $10 billion in subsidies. … At Exxon that's what we call good business."
Comcast reviewed the ad when it got the letter, but it probably wasn't a hard decision to pull it when the request is coming from one of the nation's biggest advertisers. "We do not approve or decline advertising based on the views expressed," said a Comcast spokesperson. "We review information available at that time and make a decision."
For its part, ExxonMobil didn't have a lot of legal options to squelch the ad other than to go to Comcast or sue.
If a commercial brand used a fake spokesperson to attack a competing brand, it would be on the Federal Trade Commission's doorstep in minutes as a prime example of unfair and deceptive advertising. But issue ads have a lot more latitude.
"If it's issue advocacy by a nonprofit, it's fully protected speech, the FTC can't touch it," said Lee Peeler, CEO of the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council and former FTC official.
Despite the setback on Tuesday night, the ad from Oil Change International, Environmental Action and The Other 98% continues to have a presence online. To date, the ad has generated 150,000 views on YouTube.