Oil sector using election-style marketing techniques to drum up support

30 mai 2016

Watch for these techniques to spread to other sectors and other issues, says researcher

CALGARY, May 30, 2016 — The Canadian oil sector has pioneered the use in Canada of marketing techniques normally associated with election campaigns— techniques that actively seek out people who support their views and encourage them to make that support public.

A University of Western Ontario researcher says the move is the leading edge of a trend towards importing sophisticated, American-style marketing efforts into Canada.

The trend is not limited to the oil sector, he adds, saying we can expect to see it spread to other sectors and to other issues.

Adam Harmes is an associate professor at Western’s Department of Political Science and the author of a study of lobbying and political marketing in the Canadian oil sector. He is presenting the results of his study at the 2016 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary.

Harmes looks at the rise of what he calls ‘campaign-style advocacy’ and business-sponsored ‘grassroots lobbying’.

“The oil companies are the leading edge on this,” he says, explaining it’s probably because petroleum is a hot issue and oil companies have a lot of money. This has allowed them to seek out and implement new techniques.

One technique he describes involves businesses tapping into the public to create grassroots support.

A true grassroots organization, he says, arises spontaneously when people mobilize around an issue that they care about. Grassroots organizations carry a lot of weight because they are perceived to express the will of the people.

In the past, some business interests have tried to capitalize on the credibility of grassroots organizations by setting up fake grassroots groups—groups that only look like they have popular support, but which in reality are sponsored and paid for by business. Harmes calls these ‘Astroturf groups.’

What’s new, he says, is the rise of something in between: business-sponsored grassroots groups.

Like the Astroturf groups, they are created and supported by business.

But like true grassroots groups, their members are individuals who genuinely believe in the cause. Except that it’s the company or organization that is mobilizing them.

Harmes points to a campaign being run by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canada’s Energy Citizens, as an example. It is based on a U.S. model, energycitizens.org.

Harmes says social media and sophisticated research techniques are what allow campaigns like these to flourish.

Companies use market research to identify individuals who are sympathetic to their cause. They then recruit those people through social media campaigns. Once a database of sympathetic individuals has been created, they mobilize them to take action. For example, a supporter might get an email asking them to share something on their Facebook page.

Harmes says that the people will be pushed over time towards higher and higher levels of engagement. They might be asked to write letters to politicians, for example, or attend public meetings.

“These kinds of things are spread more widely in the U.S. because the technology is there,” he says. “More and more consultants are importing these techniques into Canada from the U.S. And costs are coming down because you do this through social media.”

As a result, he says we can expect to see more campaigns like these.

Adam Harmes will be presenting this research on June 1 at the 2016 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary. This presentation is called “Lobbying and Political Marketing in the Canadian Oil Sector” and will take place at 3:45-5:15 pm in the Science Theatres - 130 on the University of Calgary campus.


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