In 2010, the largest accidental marine oil spill garnered a large amount of media attention. Billions of gallons of oil were spilled, and hundreds of people were killed. i.e. a PR nightmare for oil companies. Meanwhile, Chevron was already dealing with own controversy, where they were being sued by Ecuadorians for causing environmental and social harm in the region.
Chevron had a solution to this problem, and prepared to launch a campaign greenwashing their industry practices, by releasing advertisements with real people saying what oil companies should do, with slogans like “Oil companies should put their profits to good use”, alluding that Chevron is looking out for the little people, and their concerns (without mentioning any alternative practices, policies, or outcomes of their business). They also hired Cesar Maxit a political street artist to help with the campaign by bringing posters to the street.
Cesar secretly reached out to RAN (Rainforest Alliance Network, not me), and with access to all the Chevron ads, asked if they would be ready to hijack the campaign before it was even released. They agreed, and thus began their successful detournment of Chevron’s campaign. They released hundreds of printable “improved” advertisements.
Online users took this and continued to play around with it, completely spoofing Chevron’s original ad and making parodies, changing the media focus upon the very real social and environmental harms directly influenced by oil companies. Debord explains that successful detournment “will express our indifference toward a meaningless and forgotten original, and concern itself with rendering a certain sublimity”. This campaign did just that, and by releasing the hijacked campaign at the same time as Chevron’s own campaign, the activists effectively put Chevron’s $90 million dollar greenwashing campaign in the trash.
The following Spring, a judge in Ecuador awarded Chevron’s victims $18.2 billion. This shows the potential power of detournment, and its political and economic influence. This connects to Harold’s argument that culture jamming perhaps can have more social influence, rather than more conventional forms of “negation and opposition”. That said, Chevron still continues to be an oil giant and continues to cause environmental and social harm, so we can still maintain a pessimistic view of the reality of oil corporatization (sorry for the sad ending).