Framing Science

Scientists are the most trusted spokespeople in America. Surveys show that they are the most admired profession and among institutions, only the military scores higher in terms of public confidence. Not only are scientists trusted authorities, the public strongly associates science with social progress and economic growth.

So when a company is struggling to tell its story and get its message across to the American public, it makes sense to turn to its scientists to deliver a message. It’s basic branding. Just like companies pay millions to advertise and sponsor the Olympics, Exxon Mobil has spent millions in an attempt to create a strong mental association between the company and the American public’s deep belief in science.

For example, the ad shown above uses a medical scientist to describe Exxon Mobil’s work to battle Malaria in Africa. Other ads use scientists to describe Exxon’s research on renewable energy while still other ads turn to scientists to promote the company’s commitment to science education. The company has even started an “ambassador” program where Exxon scientists participate in science education programs at local schools. (Watch the series of ads here.)

But here is the flip side: Branding itself in association with science might be good for Exxon Mobil but is it good for the public image of science? The company is under increasing public criticism and has one of the lowest reputation scores of any major corporation. If Exxon Mobil redefines itself as a science company will that affect the public’s perception of science?

I’m not sure. I think it could, but then again, surveys also show that the public can distinguish between govt. funded university science and privately funded science. What do readers think?


  1. #1 jj
    August 22, 2008

    I think that it can and will have a negative effect on how people see the scientific community. One thing I notice from living in an ultra-liberal-eco-friendly area, is that sometimes people don’t trust that scientists are actually trying to ‘help’ the environment(depending on your definition of help). Area’s that get the bad rap are bio-engineering, bio-medical research (like on lab animals, we had that ‘fire bombing’ issue with some of the researcher’s at the university here in town), GMO research (notice a trend?), and then of course, companies like Dow, Dupont and Exxon etc. I think for some they can differentiate those scientists who work to ‘better’ the environment, and those that are there to ‘better’ industry. Not to say they can’t be one-in-the-same, but they aren’t always perceived that way.

  2. #2 travc
    August 22, 2008

    Oil companies are very big and pretty diverse organizations. I’d even hazard to say that the majority of people making decisions at oil companies are quite moral and ethical. But of course a few high ranking execs setting priorities with little or no regard to anything but their bottom line can do a hell of a lot of harm.

    The PR relies on people not realizing this, and is annoying if not outright harmful. That said, if Exxon gave me a grant to actually do something I thought was good, I’d take it… and would probably even be willing to cut a TV ad (so long at it is factual) as a condition.

  3. #3 Hank Roberts
    August 22, 2008

    Well, duh!

    The fossil fuel position all along has been to discredit the sciences.

    Putting scientists up as talking heads and sock puppets can only further that.


    Has anyone started a list of the people used in these commercials, with anything they’ve published in refereed journals? Let’s have a look. Because that’s science. Not PR spots.

  4. #4 natural cynic
    August 25, 2008

    So, Exxon Mobil, how much money have your spent in funding these wonderful projects? And how much money have you spent bragging about them?

  5. #5 John Fleck
    August 25, 2008

    Matthew –

    Most interesting point. I wish I had data to support this, but my anecdotal sense about the political battles over nuclear issues here in New Mexico have left a strong undercurrent of distrust of scientific elites. What’s not clear to me is whether this distrust is widespread among the general public, or confined to those actively engaged in the public battles.

  6. #6 Marilyn Walker
    August 25, 2008

    As a non-scientist, I loved these ads, which I saw while watching the Olympics, so already in a “global state of mind.” I think any effort to promote science and research and their importance to America is a good thing, even if that effort is motivated by profit.

  7. #7 cindy
    August 26, 2008


    I think this sort of advert sets up Exxon as “trustworthy” on science. Handy when Exxon wants to weigh in with its not so solid “scientific” arguments in other areas…. like about how climate science needs more research (before anyone should take action)- a line not too dissimilar to the one Bush/Cheney have taken for the last 7 years.

    Also their argument about how Prince William Sound is back to its pristine former self. Exxon has spent millions on scientific research in Prince William sound, much of which is strangely at odds with independent scientific research post-Valdez.

    Essentially, this sorta stuff gives Exxon credibility for when it wants to mis-use science. Which it does.

  8. #8 martha kazmierczak
    April 27, 2012

    As a former Mickelson/MobileExxon Teacher Academy participant I see the value Mobile Exxon gives to science and math at the most elementary level. Their belief in education, math and science, does create a strong mental association between the work and its roots in science. To stimulate interest and a future for our youth these motivating opportunities for teachers are sorely needed. Schools today do not have the resources to fund this type of learning. My students, school,and community, appreciate the commitment MobileExxon has made in enhancing my ability to reach students in the 21st century.

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