Going Mobil

By MARCO TRBOVICH  |  August 26, 2009

Well, if corporations are virtually people, there's a name for a person who would speak about energy in the blatant distortions and half-truths of Mobil's advertising: that sort of person is usually called John Connally. During the heat of a divestiture debate in 1976, for instance, Mobil ran an ad citing a long list of "competitors" in a feeble attempt to convince the public that the Sever Sisters weren't monopolizing the oil industry. Under the headline "Meet Some of Our Competitors" ran some of the following luminaries in the constellation of American corporate power: By-Rite, E-Z Serve, Gas Hut, Hy-Flash, Kickapoo, Miss Quick, Robin, Toot 'n' Moo, and Town Pump. With an apparent ignorance of the inherent satire, Mobil put the following line after the names: "That's a lot of competition." In another ad, Mobil sought to impart the dire consequences of divestiture by quoting half a dozen economists (some of whom can be very friendly). Among them was UCLA professor Neil H. Jacobi, who two years after OPEC had quadrupled oil prices predicted that OPEC would "cut the price of oil because it is in its economic interest to do so."

The media for these messages have been television and leading newspapers, including the Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times – where Mobil's regular Thursday op-ed page messages have become as prominent as the Times's leading columnists. "The nameless Mobil-ad writing," Robert Sherrill has written, "consumes per appearance more space than Reston or Wicker or Safire." In the last seven years, the Times has sold nearly 14,000 column inches to Mobil, the equivalent to 100 complete op-ed pages. "It comes down to this," wrote Michael Gerrard in Esquire: "With sheer cash, Mobil has become a Times columnist."

About his achievement Schmertz has waxed both proud and defensive. "I don't think for one minute," he has said, "that a full-page advertisement without logic would persuade either a voter or a legislator who has read a more cogent argument on a penny post card." Although this statement stretches the word "logic" to absurd extremes, for sheer cant it not compare with Schmertz's call for tax deductions on corporate advertising. "Is there a logical reason," he asks, "why ordinary businesses should not deduct the cost of their advocacy messages when media corporations can deduct the cost of editorials in which they support or oppose candidates or legislation?" Schmertz's right – there is not one logical reason. There are about 4000 of them. But it may be too much to ask that a man who polemically equates New York Times ads with penny post cards should understand such reasons.

Ideology aside, as they say in the advertising business, the choice of Schmertz solves one serious problem for the Kennedy campaign, which is freighted with organizational intelligence and light on experienced campaign communicators. The problem has been complicated by squabbling within the staff about the message of the campaign – bickering so intense that Richard Goodwin, who had planned to move into Kennedy's Mac-Lean, Virginia, home and work on the campaign, has now decided to remain in the less embattled confines of his Lincoln estate and advise from afar. Schmertz's control over polling as well as advertising will give him swan in this controversy, for he is preeminently qualified where others in Kennedy's campaign are neophytes. As one participant in a high level Kennedy meeting complained recently, "They're not talking about conceptualizing the race." Herb Schmertz knows how to conceptualize.

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