Gameswashing: Shell's play for young gamers is unethical and unsurprising
Does Shell's entry into Fortnite mark a new era of 'gameswashing'? Kwalee’s Harry Lang believes so.
First, there was ‘sportswashing’ - the use of professional sports as part of an ethically unsound environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy to misdirect public attention from nefarious behavior and enhance a toxic brand’s reputation by wedding to a famous sporting spectacle. Take, for example, the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, when Hitler’s Nazis invited celebrated Black speed merchant Jessie Owens to compete, seemingly believing he’d be trounced in the hundred meters race by the ‘master race.’ Owens won four gold medals in a turn of events that the word ‘schadenfreude’ could have been invented for. ‘Höchste-schadenfreude,’ if you will. What a cock-up.
These days, sports marketing is an altogether slicker, more data-driven and media-astute affair, so we’re treated to the likes of the F1 in Bahrain and the Saudi-backed LIV golf tour, where the black marks of poor humanitarian behavior are scoured from the whiteboard of history with rolls of hundred Dollar bills. It seems to be working, as does greenwashing.
There are loads of greenwashers, and some even appear to have decent intent. Still, the fact remains that the majority remain inherently self-serving while patting themselves on the back with PR stories about their good deeds. Earth.org has compiled a handy list of some of the worst greenwashers, which could sadly be overlaid on to a chart of the world’s most influential companies.
Similarly, ‘Wokewashing’ is when brands use social justice in their marketing to hone a more cozy image while taking no discernible social action.
My wokewashing favorite was conceived in 2019 by Cadbury (now owned by corporate glutton Mondelez International). It crafted chocolate bars with dark, blended, milk and white chocolate segments to mark India’s Independence Day. The ‘Unity Bar’ went down like a sack of shit, leading to a now-famous Twitter comment: “& just like that… Cadbury’s ended racism.”
On a product marketing level alone, Cadbury should’ve heeded the words of Steve Biko before adding white chocolate to the end of the Unity Bar. When speaking about white people in response to a derogatory slur made by a judge, he famously retorted: “Why do you call yourself white when you are actually pink?”
And, this brings us, down the murky sinkhole of post-spill detritus, to Shell.
Shell’s big dirty spill into gaming
In the hierarchical scale of Fundamentally Undesirable Brands Actively Ruining Earth (FUBARE for short), Shell must be challenging for the medals.
Alongside other petrochemical entities, it runs hot when it comes to massive companies with the best chance of irredeemably destroying the planet, making it a very rich company.
Like big tobacco before, a diminished ability to make up false stuff when marketing its products means Shell has a huge slush fund left to focus on fluffy, perception-altering brand campaigns. Enter the burgeoning world of video games.
As Coca-Cola (a leading greenwashing in its own right) rightfully asserted, children are ‘...the future of the world’ and hundreds of millions of kids love to play games daily, many choosing Fortnite.
So Shell partnered with Fortnite map creators to develop ‘Shell Ultimate Road Trips,’ an in-game world featuring six different areas to explore in the car of your choice. Amid these worlds, players find a solitary Shell petrol station (if you’re paying for it, you may as well play the ‘savior’).
The campaign (purposefully pivoting Shell back into fossil fuels and away from more future-proof but less profitable clean energy sources) promotes its new V-Power NiTRO+ product using numerous influencers and creators on TikTok, Twitch and YouTube to sell its message to the game’s 231m monthly active players.
“Shell V-Power® NiTRO+ Premium gasoline removes up to 100% of performance-robbing deposits to rejuvenate your engine’s performance” must be a bit of a mouthful to shoehorn into your Twitch stream. Still, these creators are a talented and resourceful bunch, especially when they’re so well-paid.
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Luckily, today’s game-playing teens are as cynical as they are savvy, seeing Shell’s gameswashing efforts for the fickle attempts of PR self-fluffery they are, as neatly summarized by one Reddit user: “Shell Oil - the stuff kids go for.”
Why it matters
On June 11, 2023, the latest oil spill attributed to Shell facilities burst into the Okulu River in Nigeria. More than 13,500 residents from the Ogale and Bille communities in the Niger Delta have filed claims against the company, asking it clean ups spills that “wrecked their livelihoods, poisoned their wells, and polluted their land and water, which means they can no longer farm or fish.”
This kind of eco-disaster isn’t exactly new to Shell. It’ll take more than a few games and creators to sweep them under the carpet.
Meanwhile, Esso has pointed its misdirection drills towards people’s wallets instead, crafting its ‘Thoughtful Driving’ campaign in May of this year to help people “...drive less and help them save fuel”.
To continue the theme, let’s call this codswallop from earth-sucking eco-vampire Exxon Mobil ‘Valuewashing’. After all, the best way to help out struggling customers in these harsh socio-economic times might just have been to hand back a smidgen of its $56bn profit.
So there you have it - if there’s a cause out there to be exploited or an industry ripe for corporate intercourse, it’s either already happened or in the post. Just be sure to stick the word ‘washing’ after it.
One day, brands might realize that a holistic, truthful and long-term intent to make things better via a genuine ESG strategy would be a more powerful - and more profitable - marketing lever to pull. But sadly, most industries are still playing their little games instead.