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TikTok stars spark outrage after investigation reveals pattern of shady partnerships: 'We needed [millennials] to forget their prejudices...'

"They're not just promoting a particular product, but trying to alter their perception in the public eye and maintain their social license."

Photo Credit: iStock

Fuels that we burn for energy, such as oil, coal, and gas, produce huge amounts of air pollution. These heat-trapping gases are such a significant factor in the world's increasing temperature that one meteorologist proposed naming heat waves after oil companies to hold them accountable for the extreme weather

Now, research from investigative website DeSmog reveals that large oil companies are trying to change their image by hiring online influencers to promote them, The Washington Post reported.

What's happening?

The Post spotlighted TikTok star Nora Capistrano Sangalang (@ourfilipinograndma), who usually posts about her grandson. In September 2022, she posted an ad for Shell's fuel rewards loyalty program, angering many of her 2.3 million followers.

Sangalang is just one of more than 100 influencers DeSmog identified who have promoted dirty energy companies since 2017. This appears to be a campaign by Shell and other oil companies to change their image with young people, who are more likely than older generations to be concerned about the way the world is heating up.

According to the Post, public relations firm Edelman claims to have created a campaign for Shell in 2017. The firm's site said of the project: "We needed them [millennials] to forget their prejudices about 'big oil' and think differently about Shell."

Edelman has been criticized for the amount of work it has done for large, polluting oil companies. While the firm would not confirm whether Sangalang and other influencers were part of its campaign in support of Shell, it seems likely. 

Other oil companies that have participated in this practice are Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips.

Why does this new form of publicity matter?

By campaigning to change their reputation with younger generations, companies like Shell hope to avoid being passed over for more affordable, cleaner alternatives like electric vehicles.

"They are trying to win the trust of a younger generation," Sam Bright, DeSmog's U.K. deputy editor, told the Post. "They're not just promoting a particular product, but trying to alter their perception in the public eye and maintain their social license."

To do that, Shell has reportedly lied about its investments and run misleading ads. These deceptive "greenwashing" practices harm consumers' ability to make informed choices about which companies to support.

What's being done about Shell's tactics?

Oil companies have gotten pushback from some of the influencers they reached out to, the Post revealed. For example, blogger Francesca Willow turned down a request from oil and gas company Pheasant Energy.

"The International Energy Agency has been clear on the need for a transition away from oil and gas," Willow said in her reply. "Please act accordingly."

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