Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How Is Oil Sand Sludge "Essentially Like Yogurt"?

Here is a story that combines propaganda (or PR) and English/French cultural differences in Canada.

In the Globe and Mail

"The Alberta oil patch has avoided potential embarrassment after Advertising Standards Canada ruled that an advertisement that compared toxic oil sands effluent to yogurt did not mislead viewers."
The advertisement was put out in English and French. The English advertisement stated that the oil sands tailings effluent was "essentially like yogurt". The French version said it "had the consistency of yogurt". The English version was protested by the Sierra Club of Canada as misleading, and the English version ad was pulled. The French version is still up.

We learn from this story that the Advertising Standards of Canada does not have a problem with an ad that states toxic oil effluent is like yogurt. According to the ASC, this level of distortion is normal, and well understood by society. They said it is a way to explain the consistency of the effluent, not a statement about it's toxicity.

It is a mistake to think that advertising and PR is a communication like a normal email or conversation. In advertising, PR, and propaganda, every word is studied and every sentence crafted carefully to manipulate the audience's responses, both conscious and subconscious. Every word is carefully considered for its impact, and for whether it has crossed the line from exaggeration into outright lying. The message of the ad is that oil effluent is not so bad. Some marketing person must have had the idea that they could compare the sludge's consistency to yogurt, and furthermore they could leave out the word "consistency". Probably some other people said "I like it, but wouldn't we get slapped by the Advertising Standards Council for lying?". The marketing person replies "Nawwww! we do it in advertising all the time. We can say it's like yogurt, and then argue later that we meant consistency, and only a fool would actually try to eat it. "

Then, they got the ad translated into French. I was not there to hear the conversation, but I can imagine the French interpreter saying. "We're going to need that word "consistency" in the French version." English marketing person says. "Why?". French translator replies "Unlike the English Canadians, French Canadians who hear the ad will react negatively if we try to tell them the sludge is essentially like yogurt." English marketer: "Those French people are such liberal bleeding hearts. Well, we have to go with your recommendations, because you know the French audience better than we do."

Apparently, the English marketer was right in one way, the ASC let the statement stand uncorrected. But when the Sierra Club complained, it was the sponsors of the ad who backed down in embarrassment, and pulled the ad.

It proves that despite the American influence, some English speaking Canadians have some ability to detect bulls**t in advertising.

By the way, in case it was not obvious: When all the propaganda is stripped away, nobody cares about the "consistency" of the toxic sludge. I am quite sure that the word consistency is being misused anyway. (Do they really mean "viscosity"?) What people actually care about is that birds coated with this sludge die, and that it is very hard to clean off without help. I have not tried this at home, but I'm betting that if you dunked a bird in a vat of yogurt, it would have a much better chance of surviving on its own than if you dunked it in a vat of toxic tar sand runoff. That's what people really care about, and this issue of "consistency" is nothing but a standard advertising ploy. The only similarity between yogurt and oil sludge is that they are both semi-liquid, and whether the ASC permits it or not, it is ridiculous to mention both in the same sentence.

Picture: from this web page


  1. Evidently the efforts of the CAPP have not been very successful in persuading you that those tailings ponds are, in the end, not really that much of a problem!

    CAPP's PR flacks are working overtime to counter the negative publicity, especially from efforts such as the American No Dirty Energy campaign. (Perceptive readers may well notice that most of those campaigns persist in the use of the term 'Tar Sands' - a term largely abolished from the Canadian discussions in favour of 'Oil Sands'.)

    But, seriously, those tailings ponds merely contain water, sand, silt, clay and some residual bitumen from the extraction processes. All pretty much harmless - as long you don't come in contact with it. But if you do, you'll have to deal with the effects of things like naphthenic acids, ammonia, benzene, toluene, creosols, asphaltene, phenols and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and various heavy metals, such as arsenic, zirconium, titanium and lead, which are also present in that soup.

    Perhaps we should say that the tailings ponds are also fine, except when the dikes rupture. Then you better stay clear of the water in the Athabasca River as well.

    As an example of just how outrageous this whole thing is, consider this 'breakthrough technology' which brags of being able to recover 50-70% of heavy metals and solvents.

    Yeah, but ... what about the other 30-50%. Explain that one to me, CAPP.

  2. Water, sand, silt, clay, and some residual bitumen, is that is what they were saying was like yogurt?

    I am just wondering if there is some confusion between an oil spill and a tailings dump. When I was looking for a picture of a bird, I rejected at least one that said it was a file photo from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But the picture I used, said "Duck in Syncrude tar sands tailing pond"

  3. From this detailed scientific study:
    'A tar sand tailings pond contains the residue or tails left after bitumen is extracted from the sand, which consists of process water, sand, fines (silts and clays), residual bitumen (1-5%), and associated chemicals. [...] A shallow layer of process water covers the pond which overlies fine tailings that become more consolidated with depth.'

    I believe that photo you've referenced was originally published by the Edmonton Journal and is, in fact, a photo of a duck at Syncrude's Aurora tailings pond.