If you can’t join em, beat ’em: The day that Gasoline went Clean, and got Whacked.

March 17, 2014 |

Chevron-f310-1In 1970, an oil company launched the first major ad campaign around environmental benefits of a new fuel formulation.

Then, a radical shift in gasoline pricing occurred just as those remarkable ads went off the air.

What were lessons that industry learned about alternative fuels? How might it be still impacting us today? 

The Digest investigates. Part 1, today.

In the misty dawn of ancient time, which is to say January 1970, Standard Oil of California launched a series of print and television ads, and a bumper sticker and point-of-purchase promotion program, touting the benefits of the new F-310 additive in Chevron-branded gasolines. It was described as a “remarkable gasoline breakthrough” that would turn “dirty exhaust into good clean mileage,” and “help toward cleaner air.”

1970. It was the year of the first Earth Day. The year that President Nixon established the EPA by executive order.  The year that Parker Brothers replaced “Farming” with “Ecology” as a job option in their Careers board game.

About F-310 and all the fuss

What was F-310? It was a marketing brand name for a polybutene amine additive, which reduced the emission of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, by as much as 50 percent in tests that the company had conducted.

SoCal’s ad agency hired former Gemini and Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter as a pitchman, and a series of five TV ads were aired. Perhaps the most memorable was one in which a balloon attached to a car’s exhaust pipe “before” F-310 filled up with charcoal-black gas. By contrast, a ballon attached to the same exhaust pipe “after F-310” was see-through after inflation.

Chevron-2-f310

Though SoCal’s research had suggested mileage improvements of up to 7.7 percent after using F-310 for 2,000 miles with a “dirty engine”, the ads focused on the clean air benefits, not mileage.

The ads set off a minor sensation, and competing oil companies scrambled to combat the impact of F-310 gasoline. A price war broke out in the key Los Angeles market that led to the price of gasoline dropping between two and 12 cents per gallon. This, at a time when the average retail price of gasoline was 36 cents.

To put this in today’s context, imagine a series of ads touting benefits that cause retail gasoline prices to drop $1.20 per gallon, in a period of months, absent any other macroeconomic factors.

In short, big impact. In some ways, it remains the most dramatic effort ever undertaken by an oil company in the marketing of environmentally-friendly fuels.

The FTC steps in

You may wonder why the campaign was not continued. The additive has been subsequently improved and substantially reformulated and, as the polyether amine additive known as Techron, continues to play a role in Chevron gasoline marketing. With Techron, though, you hear about engine benefits rather than air pollution.

Shortly after the F-310 ad campaign debuted, a substantive complaint was raised to the Federal Trade Commission regarding deceptive advertising practices — and ultimately a series of cease-and-desist orders were issued to SoCal and its advertising agency BBDO.

Though the initial complaint was much broader, the FTC findings narrowed in, ultimately, on the general unsuitability of simplistic television and print advertising to convey a complex message about air pollution to a relatively unsophisticated national audience.

Chevron-f310-3

Though the ads specifically compared F-310 benefits to a coked-up “dirty engine”, it was found that most viewers really wouldn’t understand what that term specifically meant, and might extrapolate the claimed benefits to relatively clean engines. The FTC also found that the average viewer would simply not understand that many important air pollutants, including those that F-310 did not reduce, were invisible — so that you couldn’t see them in the “clean balloon” and viewers might get the wrong idea that F-310 reduced or eliminated all air pollutants.

Finally, the FTC took issue with a “Meter” ad in which a meter attached to an exhaust pipe showed an emissions reduction from “100” to “20” – implying an 80% reduction in emissions, when the hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide reductions were closer to fifty percent.

The FTC case dragged on for years. By the time the final decision was handed down — in the form of a “consent order” reflecting a voluntary agreement between the parties, it was November 1974, the campaign was long gone, and the 1973-75 oil crisis was in full flower.

Chevron-f310-4

The consent order, in some detail

(Note to readers: you can skip this section, if you like.It’s wordy legalese that, to summarize, would make it virtually impossible for an oil company to market environmental benefits in fuels without a series of disclosures and caveats that would remind you of a television drug ad. But it illustrates how the FTC saw its role in protecting consumers at the time.)

Though an administrative law judge had handed down an “initial decision” in 1973 striking down the entire complaint against SoCal and its agency, the consent order required that SoCal and its agencies:

Do forth with cease and desist from:

1. Representing directly or by implication that any such product:

(a) Will produce or result in motor vehicle exhaust which is pollution free or generally pollution free; or

(b) Will eliminate or reduce air pollution caused by motor vehicles; or

(c) Will eliminate or reduce emissions from all or any number or group of motor vehicles in which it is used;

or that will eliminate or reduce air pollution caused by motor vehicles; or

(c) Will eliminate or reduce emissions from all or any number or group of motor vehicles in which it is used;

or that:

d) Any gasoline or gasoline additive product has any other quality, performance ability or other characteristic; or

(e) Tests, demonstrations, research or experiments have been conducted which prove or substantiate any of said representations.

Unless and only to extent that each and every such representation is true and has been fully and completely substantiated by competent scientific tests. The results of said tests, the original data collected in the course thereof and a detailed description of how said tests were performed shall be kept available in written form for at least three years following the final use of the representation.

And SoCal was ordered to cease and desist from:

2. Representing directly or by implication that:

a) Automotive exhaust has certain observable or measurable characteristics in all or any number or group of motor vehicles when such is not the fact; or

(b) Any machines, measuring devices or technical instruments have particular characteristics or capacities when such is not the fact; or

c) Any product has any effectiveness in reducing air pollution or any air pollutant or air pollutants without at the same time, in the same advertisement or other form of communication, conspicuously disclosing that not all of the harmful pollutants in automotive exhaust are affected by said product; or

d) Any product will reduce any emissions of pollutants from automobile exhaust by any percentage or numerical quantity unless in connection therewith there is a clear, accurate and conspicuous disclosure of the type of vehicle which can expect to achieve reductions of such magnitude and the approximate percentage of such vehicles in the general car population.

(Note to readers: if you skipped the legalese, jump back in here.)

How additives are marketed today, since the FTC action

The ad campaign in question had been discontinued in 1970. Since then, SoCal (now Chevron) has focused its advertising of additives, such as Techron, around other benefits cited by the FTC. Such as, that F-310 was “effective in controlling carburetor and intake system deposits, [and] also in reducing the build-up of sludge and varnish on pistons, piston rings, valve lifters, oil screens, oil pump relief valves and PCV valves.”

Other subsequent oil company campaigns — such as promotion of the Shell Nitrogen additive — have also focused narrowly on engine rather than environmental benefits. Despite the possibility that such benefits exist, and despite substantial evidence from the 1970 campaign that environmental benefits could have a monumental impact on market share.

In Part 2, tomorrow: we look at the substantive changes in how gasoline is priced relative to crude oil, in the United States, since 1970. Is there a connection between what happened in the effort to promote cleaner fuels, and how gasoline pricing has changed? Our findings may startle.

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