Thursday, June 17, 2010

Don Easton's "Portrait of a (Oil Industry) Capitalist"

Way back in the mid-1940s Union Oil had illustrator Don Easton draw a series of ads promoting the oil company's position in the business of providing fuel to the American consumer market. Perhaps even in those hopeful post-war days, when the industrial sector was not viewed with a jaundiced eye (and long before environmental concerns), Union Oil felt that the public perception of the oil industry was that a few fat cats puffing on big cigars and sipping from brandy snifters were making a killing at the expense of 'the little guy'. Union Oil asked us to consider "who actually runs the oil companies?"

Buried in the text-heavy copy of those ads are some undeniable truths that no one in those days could have imagined would come back to haunt us half a century later.

These statements were made with a different motive in mind, but if we had had the benefit of genuine forsight, perhaps we would have read a forbidding warning in what was meant to be a reassuring confirmation that we (all of us average hard working consumers) were "in the driver's seat."

It turns out all we need to do is look in the mirror to see the portrait of a capitalist. I'm not saying its a dirty word by the way (before all the Fox News watchers jump down my throat) I'm just saying that we are all culpable in disasters like the one unfolding in the Gulf. The oil economy transformed the world and raised the standard of living for untold millions of (mostly western) people. Its also caused untold suffering to millions and millions of people, plants and animals all over the world.

Unfortunately every silver lining has a dark cloud inside of it. And tar balls.

I'm as guilty as anybody so, seriously, I am not meaning to preach. I just thought it was sort of interesting when I stumbled across these ads in my collection and, by coincidence, we find ourselves immersed in the worst oil spill disaster in the history of civilization ( latest estimate, nine times worse than the Exxon Valdez and counting ) and I see all the fingers pointing blame at somebody else. Union Oil spelled it out half a century ago: "the people in this country determine [an oil company's] entire course of action... whether it shall expand its drilling operations or curtail them" ... with their "votes" at the cash register. For our purposes in modern times, that can be expanded to "the people of the world..." because let's face it, with automobile ownership and a rapidly expanding middle (consumer) class in Asia, we're really all in this together from here on in.

The question is, have we learned anything at all or will it be business as usual? And where do we go from here?

* Although I know nothing about illustrator Don Easton I have a gut feeling he was a West Coast illustrator ( and Union Oil was a California company so it makes sense ). Easton's ink line drawings are really lovely to look at close up so I have posted these scans 50% bigger than I usually do. Just click on any one to see the details of these many small spots in greater detail.

* My Industry Flickr set.


  1. Hi Leif,
    Sadly I agree, as a culture we all bear responsibility for the events in the Gulf. It would be easy to blame this all on BP. But the truth is that their attitudes (chiefly: get the quick buck) are shared by many US and International companies. This started decades ago with the advent of CEOs coming in and cutting costs (often at the expense of labor, safety or research) to show a quarterly profit to shareholders. After a few good quarters, and outrageous compensation to the CEO they are off to "help" another publicly owned company. This idea of efficiency has spread to our public education system - productivity before ethics!

    Sorry if this off topic, this is an (excellent) art blog - not a political rant fest.

    Thanks for all the work you put into TI!


  2. Anonymous6:24 PM

    Sadly there have been worse oil spills:

  3. Anonymous7:03 PM

    interestingly, Standard Oil (now Chevron) mounted a similar campaign called See Your West - very nice photo giveaways (by folks like Ansel Adams) with every fill-up - a sort of continuation of Manifest Destiny

  4. Oil companies have expertise in drilling for oil, but are not really experienced in stopping leaks or cleaning up spills. There are thirty thousand oil rigs pumping oil out of the ground twenty four seven in the gulf alone, and the percentage of accidents are extremely small. The vast majority of these operations have amazing records of NO oil spills or leaks, therefore they need experts that do have the experience of solving the problem.. but they were turned away by the Obama administration. Unfortunately, BP was not allowed to drill in shallower waters closer to the shore line, where they requested. Deep water drilling is much more risky in many respects. This massive leak has now become potent fodder for those in government and others that want to demonize the oil industry or any big corporation for that matter. The more people on this earth, the more chance of all kinds of accidents, regardless of safety measures or inspections. Solution: Oil.. no butter up your bicycles and avoid other products from oil, which are so numerous that we would be living in the "Dark Ages" without them. By the way, oil is technically a "green product", so I guess that makes oil companies "green companies". ;-)

    Since today's post was two fold, I agree with Leif that the pen and ink illos by Don Easton are very nice, and I think your right about having that "west coast look". But, Charlie Allen would know better than I. Don Easton sounds vaguely familiar, but don't recall him in the S.F. market from 1960 on.

    Tom Watson

  5. Thank you for the fascinating post. Those ads are great, and actually make you think. I wish we saw more campaigns like that today. (and Easton's wonderful inks don't hurt)

  6. Thanks to you all for your excellent comments! This issue really hit home for me the other morning, when a radio commentator I was listening to talked about how all pervasive petroleum products are in our modern life. Boiling it down, he said, "basically, if its not made of glass, metal or wood, its got petroleum in it." As an example he talked about how both shampoo and deodorant have oil in them and the containers are made of the stuff. That made me realize that everything, from the food I eat to the clothes I wear to the the furniture in my house to the tools of my profession (and of course every element of any mode of transportation in my life, including my running shoes!) are ALL dependent on the oil economy.

    Tom, I agree with you that gov't dropped the ball in this case, but I wouldn't point a finger directly at Obama. That's far to partisan and doesn't address the larger problem. The problem as I see it is way more pervasive in all aspects and levels of government and hinges on a lack of regulation and oversight. And even then, the buck has to stop with each and every one of us, because we elected the government and allowed the system to be run the way it is. Until we demand strict oversight, we'll keep having to live with the consequences of sloppiness, shortsightedness, and immediate gratification.

  7. Chad Sterling10:53 AM

    The oil leak is a terrible problem, but the way Obama is going after one 'guilty party' is ridiculous.
    Glad you enjoyed your birthday, I bet they had to prise you out of there.You didnt manage to sneak out a few originals did you?
    I like these drawings by Easton, they remind me a little of Charlie Allen as Tom said.

  8. Thanks for the insightful and level headed comment Leif, and I understand your points. I agree with Chad's comment about Obama only blaming one source for the oil leak as being ridiculous. My disdain for Obama is his lack of leadership and politicizing every situation.. and now he's actually lying about it. Since I didn't vote for him, because I knew he had no experience or background that would indicate he would make a competent leader, I don't feel that I contributed to the administration's lack of any productive response to the oil leak. I agree we must have necessary regulations to protect people and the environment, which is the government's job, but not to the point that regulations are strangling, overly discouraging or causing productivity to become less safe. One of many example is that sand was rejected because the radical environmentalists claim that using sand to absorb the escaping oil is bad for the wildlife environment.. isn't the oil worse for the wildlife environment than sand? The government should not be in charge of the oil business, nor any other private enterprise, and the U.S. Constitution's wording indicates that the federal government should have LESS authority and our state governments should have more authority in regulation matters. Government should stop the bleeding before it starts playing the blame card. When you live in a glass house, it is best not to throw stones at others.. and in this case, I am speaking about congress grilling BP, even before an independent investigation is completed. The questions were not only premature, but were immature! But, why am I not surprised?

    Tom Watson

  9. I'm sure there are as many examples of ineptitude in the Obama administration's handling of this crisis as there were in the Bush administration's handling of Katrina.

    Regarding regulation, no one wants one extreme or the other, Tom - most people - the vast majority, whether they lean left or right - want moderation that's beneficial to success and progress. Extremists on both sides inevitably derail real progress. Unfortunately those with vested interest in pushing an extremist agenda too often grab the media spotlight and seem to be speaking for the majority... when in fact they represent almost no one but themselves.

    What I'm really trying to get across (and this was why I created this post in the first place) is that we arrived where we are today because we all willingly participated in the oil economy. That's why I find the language in the Union Oil ads so fascinating.

    They said, "Hey folks, its your call. In this wonderful world of capitalist progress, you're our boss!" Back then no one seems to have had the foresight to imagine what a world we would create ... how dependent we would all become on the 'black gold'. What Union Oil's ads actually say is, "This is your fault - we're just giving you exactly what you want. We'll drill and drill and drill and screw this planet up so bad it'll become a lifeless hulk, so long as you vote at the pumps that we keep going."

    Of course hindsight is 20/20. Today, as energy alternatives are being considered, at least we have enough contrarians stepping forward to say, "Wait a minute, before you put in a million billion windmills, have you any idea how that will affect the health of people who will live their lives near them? The birds that will migrate through those areas? the actual patterns of the weather?"

    Just one example, but you get my point? If only there had been some voices raised to question the proliferation of petroleum in every aspect of life back in the '40s... perhaps we could have avoided some of the pitfalls that oil dependence lead to. Clearly an alternative is neccessary, because the oil economy, for all its transformative benefits, is also the cause of indescribable world-wide misery. Just saw some photos of the nightmare that is Nigeria, where they've had the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every year for the last two decades, and nothing's been done. It will only get worse. And I mean in our own backyard. The degradation its going to cause to the planet in the next hundred years is almost incomprehensible... the easy-to-get-at oil is mostly gone. BP has proven that extraction technology hasn't kept pace with our thirst for the juice - and the thirst is growing around the world every year. We need enlightened leadership that will wean us off the oil teat.

  10. Unfortunately it is the extremists on one side that are calling the shots now, because they have a powerful political voice and influence over the
    Obama administration.

    There is still untapped oil in North Dakota, the Rockies and in Canada that could be drilled relatively safe to humans and the environment, providing the majority of oil to north America for hundreds of years to come. It's on the drawing board, but will probably be delayed and possibly derailed at every level of approval.

    Leif, you seem to be in line with Obama's demonization of big oil companies and the "evil" capitalist market, when you interpreted the Union Oil ads. I think they were telling the public that they understood their needs and desires, and were dedicated to provide the material for their products and transportation. Maybe that's a foreign concept for some, but it's a concept that I understand well.. and I don't think they "raped" the resources and then blamed John Q. public for it in their ads. That is a subjective interpretation that supports disdain by those that want to blame capitalism for the world's woes.

    From the kid that sells lemonade on the corner for spending money, to oil tycoons that provide products for a huge mass market, it's the human spirit that motivates all of us.. well most of us.. to advance our life style. The oil companies knew that 50 or 60 years ago, and they know that now. We can rationalize every thing we do from eating fast food to a day at the zoo, and tell ourselves we are contributing to a dark future for man kind and our earth. Call me selfish, but I remain optimistic that we have the brain power to solve problems we as a society create, just as we have so many times in the past. But, it could be done a lot more effectively if we can get the damn politicians out of the way. If we don't have that capability, then our hand wringing, whining and ranting will be ultimately an exercise in futility. It will be dedicated people that will ultimately solve the oil leak, clean it up and try to avoid future disasters, not the phony politicians that don't have a clue.

    Blowing an event out of proportion only creates distortion panic and confusion, at a time when we need calm level heads finding fair minded logical solutions to this problem and future problems.

    Tom Watson

  11. Tom, you definitely are too optimistic. America has been claiming to have the power to lose their dependency on oil since the 1970s, and yet they haven't.

  12. Lampshade, that probably started with former President Jimmy Carter, who pushed that agenda along with the growing popularity of the environmentalist movement. But, imagine the U.S. using very little oil, and the dictator run countries dominating the world’s oil supply. Can you guarantee that wouldn’t happen? We would no longer be able to defend ourselves adequately. It would absolutely NOT be in our best interest, nor the world’s best interest to have brutal despots of the world dominating and running most of the oil production supply.

    If it isn't oil it will be the forest or something else that radical environmentalists will try and make us feel guilty about. Incidentally, I have nothing against environmentalists, my wife is an environmentalist, but not a radical one. We are dependent on lumber to build homes, but we haven't cut all the forests down, nor will we. My brother in law is a CDF supervisor of timber sales, and I get honest accurate information from him, not the environmental extremist version.

    My optimism is not that we become idealistic and live in a Utopian land, but that we will always adjust and readjust to our challenges, and solve problems in an effective manner that does not leave us weak and vulnerable. But, that also will depend considerably on those that are in charge, and I admit my optimism is very questionable right now.

    Hollywood loves to portray the American culture in an over the top very exaggerated way, because it plays on our emotions and miss directed guilt of many who watch movies. Unfortunately some people think it's all true, and they look for evil where Hollywood says it is. What's worse is that people in third world countries see America through Hollywood's often twisted over the top portrayal, and think Americans are heartless, cruel, gun slinging, pathological maniacs preying on the innocent or anyone that disagrees with us. Amazingly, some Americans actually believe it as well.

    It’s a complex issue with many different conflicting interests, and it will always be a work in progress, in my opinion.

    Tom Watson

  13. Interesting discussion. Nice art!

    The blame for the BP disaster goes back to about 1900 in my estimation. And, if you think about it, there is nobody alive who started us on the road to global prosperity and the environmental quandry that accompanies the use of oil as the lifeblood of civilization. History is gone and dead and you can't drag dead people to court.

    Same as Katrina, where the poor quality of the water walls was known for most of the 20th century, and nothing was done.

    That Union Oil "portrait of a capitalist" ad is classic bad faith advertising, exploiting some perception, exaggerating it, pretend they're the cure.

    As a fellow who is in and out of the ad world myself, I have a particular bone to pick with the ad... where it says, "34,114 American people own stock... the average stockholder owns just 137 shares."

    Okay... the "average" stockholder doesn't exist. All they did was divide the amount of shares by the number of owners, and came up with 137. They try to hedge this in the next line "some own more and some own less..." Uh huh... Some might own 1 share, some other fat cat might own 51% of the stock and rule the roost. They don't say. So what we have here is a classic half-truth used to exploit the preference of the little guy to buy with other "little guys" who aren't actually little.

    Same ol' same ol in the ad world.

    I remember watching BP commercials out the wazoo just before the spill about how "green" BP was... kids and attractive young women running in green fields with daisies... pure exploitation of the "green youth" market, and, of course, in some measure BP's interest in going green is true.... which is to say, in most measure it is and was phoney baloney.

    I'm more impressed with Exxon investing in Craig Venter's ideas for manipulating algae.


  14. Yeah, I'm afraid I'm with Kev, Tom. Yes, I may be demonizing Big Oil in my interpretation of the Union Oil ad, but please don't presume to align me with the Obama administration. I started my reply to you by stating I was sure their ineptitude had contributed mightily to this mess. As far as I'm concerned, both government and corporate culture deserves to be demonized. I'm an equal opportunity demonizer! ;^)

    And what's with this "radical environmentalist" moniker? Aren't you painting environmentalists with a broad, demonizing brush when you throw those kinds of talk-radio terms around?

    Can you at least demonstrate for me an example of a "radical capitalist" by comparison so I know you're not completely biased on the side of industry and free market capitalism? Or do you actually believe corporations aren't motivated by greed and self-preservation and will gladly steamroll anyone and anything that gets in the way of their bottom line?

  15. Indeed, quite an interesting discussion following Leif's original post. Out of it I would like to repeat the following comparison between mid-1940s and today:

    "Union Oil spelled it out half a century ago: "the people in this country determine (an oil company's) entire course of action in whether it shall expand its drilling operations or curtail them...with their "votes" on the cash register.
    Leif then expands the whole thing saying: "For our purposes in modern times, that can be expanded to "the people of the world"...

    The vast implication of this struck me as a fact pertaining to the present globalization issue. There hardly was any global thinking in the mid-1940s. National thinking prevailed; and that billions of Indians and Chinese and other peoples of threshold countries should one day come to adopt something like an "American way of life", would have been a far cry then. Just taking everything "for granted" won't work any more nowadays. All this incredible waste of resources may be quite feasible in a national context, but no more in a global one.

    Just too many "votes" nowadays at the cash register worldwide...

  16. Hmm, more negative subjective conjecture over a couple of mid century oil company ads. I guess conjuring up the notion that advertising agency copywriters were plotting to fool the dumb public into buying oil stock, more gasoline and God knows what else, fits the cynical mindset that there were and still are boogie men in the closet and a conspiracy behind every closed door. Sorry, I just don't buy it! Kev, we also can't drag the dead into court to defend themselves, which makes them convenient targets for the cynics and those that profit from negativism.. primarily the Unions, the media and certain politicians.

    Leif, I am not suggesting the U.S. government, big corporations, capitalism or any other institution including the Christian community, are always innocent of any wrong doing. I’ve been around too long to deny that. Mistakes, bad decisions and corruption are not going to disappear because we rant, point fingers and declare exposure to diabolical schemes, or any other outrage we can muster. Are we as individuals so sanctimonious and perfect in our personal daily lives that we gleefully condemn everything we suspect as being guilty of not fitting our idealistic view? In this case, we are looking through today’s prism at a past era that had different extenuating circumstances that most are unaware of. For some, it is popular to condemn or be derisive towards those things that were considered worthy or sacred in the past, such as Christianity, Patriotism, Capitalism, Strong Work Ethic, Prosperity, etc. That has become today’s prism that some are looking through at the past. It doesn’t take wisdom or insight to be critical.

    Leif, my opinions and comments do not come from talk radio, but from my knowledge and experiencing as an adult, almost six and a half decades of American history. It doesn’t make my opinions necessarily more valid, it just gives me a different perspective. Although we agree on illustration the majority of the time, it is no mystery that typically my point of view is conservative and typically yours is not. But, it might be boring for both of us if we agreed on everything all the time. ;-)

    Free market Capitalism is a complex issue with many different conflicting interests, and it will always be a work in progress, in my opinion. Even Canada is one of the founders and still benefiting from the Free Trade Agreement.

    Tom Watson

  17. Tom,

    huh? What conspiracy? What cynicism? What do I profit from writing this comment? I honestly don't know what you're talking about, my friend.

    The aspect of the ad I pointed out is self-evidently an effort to cook the numbers to appeal to a certain demographic. I've written copy for advertising clients and agencies. I know the reality of trying to sell, hype, and hawk to a particular demographic. To speak euphamistically, one "pulls out all the stops" until the client is satisfied. If you aren't cynical about advertising copy, you haven't been around as much as your years might suggest.

    And, furthermore, I have attended enough meetings in the advertising world to have seen many different kinds of "boogie" men first hand. Your rhetoric doesn't change my experience.

    This is not to say I'm either anti-business, anti-corporate, or anti-entrepreneurial. I'm for all 3 of those things, but I know the difficulties of getting through in the marketplace. The elbows fly all day long because they must.

  18. Kev, thanks for your response and your insight. I'm sorry your experience writing copy was on the ruthless side, and as you described, to "pull out all of the stops". Although you didn't use the words lie or distort the truth, etc., I got the impression that the agencies you did work for came dangerously close to being dishonest or perhaps were dishonest.

    I too wrote a little advertising copy and worked with copy writers on major oil company accounts and other accounts as well, in the 70s' and 80s'. Young & Rubicam, J. Walter Thompson, Doyle Dane Bernbach, Hal Riney and Partners and McCann-Erickson were a few agencies I worked on campaignes with. I was fortunate enough not to have that experience with developing headlines, copy, nor was I ever instructed to embellish or distort the truth. In fact every bit of copy had to be read and analyzed for accuracy and honesty by the corporate attorneys. On occasions, if it was doubtful, we were told to take out some wording or rewrite it, because it was a claim that could not be supported with fact. I'm not saying your scenario never happened in advertising. I'm saying that I personally did not work with anyone or any agency that tried to "cook the copy". Law suits were a big concern for both the client and the agency, so my experience was that they were extra careful about what they could and couldn't say. The attorneys had the final say, and if there was any doubt or concern, they would reject it, without hesitation. As Vice President, Creative Director for a medium size west coast agency, one of our accounts was Chevron, and it was the same scenario.

    As to your comments about slanting the numbers and shares of stock for each shareholder, stocks were and are bought in large blocks as well as individuals buying individual shares. The large blocks are made up of a collection of individuals like you and I. I don't think large oil companies have one "fat cat" individual who owns the majority shares of stock. There are many ways of investing in stock and many organizations and institutions that collectively invest in large corporations to the advantage of both the investor and the corporation. The bank invests the money we deposit as a way of generating income.

    Some of my friends and I were able to retire before age 65 through our individual investment plans. My retirement income is primarily the interest only on my investments, and never depleting the principal. After I retired, I converted from higher risk to low risk, high yielding stocks, money market and mutual funds. It is the large corporations that provides that opportunity to increase our savings. Like any of life's endeavors, there are always risks, but research and watching where your investments are going, will minimize that. If the corporations I invested in didn't make substantial profits, I would have a financial problem. If they decide to pay their CEO big bucks because he made a big profit for the corporation that year, I don't have a problem with that. Gleefully by some, the whole institution is being slammed and demonized because of some corrupt individuals that screwed their clients out of their investments. That is always a risk, and I feel badly for those that lost their investments, but no one pointed a gun to their head and said give me your money. "Buyer be ware" applies to everything.

    Kev, my point is that most of the comments have all focused on negative interpretation and conjecture, of the Union Oil ads, probably somewhat fostered by the BP leak, which is still under investigation. However, in my opinion the positives out weigh the negatives in the oil company issue, and in Capitalism as well.

    Tom Watson

  19. Thank you for the response, Tom.

    Actually, I don't think we are all that far apart in our world views. I still believe capitalism is the worst system in the world except for all the other ones, as Churchill once said. Our differences, however, may stem from the fact that we are copywriters working in different times.

    My use of the word "fatcat" was rhetoric, an exaggeration to make a point about the possibilities left open by the vagueness of the copy.

    My point was that the ad implied something (the stock is distributed essentially equally among many) it did not state. And it could not state what it implied for the exact reason that ads must have some degree of truth to them in order to prevent lawsuits. If the equality of shareholding was a reality, you can bet there would have been no implication about it. They would have stated the facts plain.

    Instead we have "of course, some own more and some own less."

    Meditate on the precision elision of that line. It could not have been written as an afterthought, given that the entire sweep of the ad hinges on the point the line addresses.

    Color me cynical, but I think that line was crafted as it is solely to equivocate the only statement the ad was designed to make.

    The copywriter's assignment -- and you must know this, given your experience -- is often to tell the truth in a way that puts the company and its product in the best light. That is, in the light that will appeal most to the target demo. The truth is sculpted to this end.

    It isn't lying. Nor is it exactly telling it straight.

    I have never been asked to lie straight out with copy... except, that is, by clients at the low end of the spectrum who tend to be more desperate for sales and market share. Quite often these kinds of clients don't realize that what they have asked me to write is untruthful... either because they think that advertising is innately dishonest and that's just the way the game is played, or they actually believe something about their product that isn't true, either because of magical thinking or an inability to understand any kind of technical analysis.

    Just so we are clear... Most of the copywriting I've done for major agencies and corporations tends to avoid anything to do with facts about the products. Its all about emotions, values, and tone. When facts are involved, my basic assignment tends to be simply translating legalese into English from a corporate lawyer's notes. (Or reconfiguring legalese previously translated so it fits the greeking on a new piece.)


  20. C. Easton7:23 PM

    I'm Don Easton's granddaughter.. He died in the late 1950's.. IN his late 50's. He indeed was a California artist, active from the early 20th century up until his untimely death, doing many ads, oils, pen & ink, pastels and watercolor.. his family is thrilled you included his work in your piece. I never knew him...having been born after he many of his works are not known to me. THANK YOU!