Oil companies' ad spending: Driven by climate change legislation & media coverage

Published: 7 January 2020

Spending on advertising by major oil corporations has reached an all-time high over the past decade. In a recent paper in Climatic Change, researchers from McGill, Brown and Rutgers Universities tried to determine the factors that might explain this increase (from an average total annual expenditure of $35 million between 1986-1996 for the five biggest companies together to an average of $217 million annually between 2008-2016 for the same companies). The researchers found that the annual corporate promotion advertising space purchases of ExxonMobil, BP-Amoco, Chevron-Texaco, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips tended to increase the most at moments when they faced negative media coverage and/or the threat of increased federal regulation.

“We found that the most important factors driving expenditures on promotional campaigns are political and media attention to climate change,” said Jason Carmichaelan associate professor in the Department of Sociology at McGill University. ”Unlike many corporations that use advertising to bolster their reputations, the oil industry appears to use such expenditures specifically to delay or limit political action that might require them to change their business practices.”

Public mood and climate change reports

The findings also suggest that oil executives are less concerned with public mood on climate change and with the release of major climate change reports, which invariably portray their companies in a negative light.

“This analysis, combined with previous research, demonstrates that ad campaigns in the oil and gas sector are specifically intended to influence how the public and lawmakers think about the climate crisis and whether they act to address it,” said Robert Brulle. He is a Brown University visiting professor based at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, and first author on the paper. “It shows that the rise and fall of spending levels is directly related to whether or not climate legislation is being considered.”


To read “Corporate promotion and climate change: an analysis of key variables affecting advertising spending by major oil corporations, 1986–2015” by Robert J. Brulle et al in Climatic Change (2019)

About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill University is Canada’s top ranked medical doctoral university. McGill is consistently ranked as one of the top universities, both nationally and internationally. It is a world-renowned institution of higher learning with research activities spanning two campuses, 11 faculties, 13 professional schools, 300 programs of study and over 40,000 students, including more than 10,200 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,800 international students making up 31% per cent of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 19% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.


Katherine Gombay
McGill Media Relations Office
katherine.gombay [at]


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