December 10, 2023

Climate activists are calling out Shell for partnering with popular video gamers and online youth influencers to promote fossil fuels to a younger generation.

The oil giant, which in July reported quarterly profits of more than $5bn (£3.9bn), worked with Fortnite creators and paid popular gamers on multiple platforms to showcase its “ultimate road trips” promotion, part of a marketing campaign for a new gasoline it calls V-Power Nitro+.

According to the group Media Matters for America, the company is targeting young players on Twitch, TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, encouraging them to fill up virtual vehicles at interactive Shell gas stations and post screenshots of the game with a #Shellroadtrips hashtag.

Research by the non-profit group revealed Shell sponsored livestreams of gameplay on Twitch by at least six streamers with a combined 5.5m followers. It also identified three more content creators on other platforms who were paid to promote the campaign in their videos. Those influencers, Media Matters said, have a combined 1.5 million Instagram followers, 8.5 million on TikTok and 11.6 million on YouTube.

A single paid promotion post last month by a YouTube presenter with the username Chica had a potential reach of 1.74 million people alone.

“Shell’s marketing to young people is another example of how big oil puts profit over people and the planet, even though it has known for decades that the product that it sells is driving the climate crisis,” said Allison Fisher, director of Media Matters’ climate and energy program.

“Regulators in the US and Europe have increasingly cracked down on the fossil fuel industry’s tactic of greenwashing or misrepresenting their products as clean or sustainable. This new campaign appears to launder its climate destabilizing product through popular gamers and social media influencers to its target demographic: those most concerned about the climate crisis.

“It may get by regulators, but it doesn’t make it OK.”

Fisher pointed to a 2021 study of thousands of young people in 10 countries that revealed 75% were “frightened” by the climate emergency, and almost half said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives.

Aru Shiney-Ajay, executive director of advocacy group Sunrise Movement, whose student members staged a climate sit-in at then-speaker Kevin McCarthy’s office last week, also criticized the promotion.

“This is another desperate move by a dying company,” she said. “Gen Z knows the truth about the fossil fuel industry, and companies like Shell know it. This is just the latest attempt to buy their way to survival.

“Students are done with this bullshit and are claiming their power. They are sitting in at [Republican party] offices and organizing to make their school boards teach the truth about the climate crisis and the fossil fuel industry’s role.”

Shell, whose chief executive Wael Sawan said in July it would be “dangerous and irresponsible” to cut the production of fossil fuels, did not return a request from the Guardian for comment.

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Its promotion is ongoing, but a tie-in sweepstakes that offered prizes from gas cards to an all-expenses paid road trip with transport and accommodation ended last month.

It is not the first time that the company has harnessed the reach of video gaming to market its products. In 2019, it sponsored the League of Legends European championships with Riot Games, saying it was “proud … to bring entertainment and value to esports fans across Europe.”

Smaller scale projects have included Shell’s sponsoring of students in Singapore to develop an online interactive game focusing on road safety.

Meanwhile, the gaming industry’s own carbon footprint has also been called into question. A 2020 article in Wired highlighted issues ranging from the manufacture of largely plastic consoles at Chinese factories powered by fossil fuels, to their intensive energy use during comparatively short lifetimes, and mass dumping in landfills when they are discarded.

That has not stopped Shell, or other companies, from attempting to win over a younger client base with online marketing and promotions using gaming and gamers.

“Trade industry groups and energy companies have sought to use influencer marketing to humanize their products, even though the impacts of these products are driving climate change [and] jeopardizing the future of its target audience,” Media Matters analyst Ilana Berger said.

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