Shell is hiring staff to promote online games, sponsoring influencers to race cars on branded virtual courses and backing athletes to inspire “the next generation” on Instagram, as the oil and gas major seeks to burnish its brand among a younger generation of consumers.

“I am fuelled by the ocean,” Sage Erickson, a two-time US open surfing champion, tells her 310,000 Instagram followers in a Shell-sponsored video posted last month in which she discusses her career and desire to “instil in the next generation” values such as personal fulfilment and community spirit.

The campaign is one of several recent initiatives by fossil fuel companies on platforms popular among young people. Climate campaigners want regulators to crack down on this type of advertising in the same way they have for tobacco and alcohol companies.

Erickson, who has also promoted ocean sustainability on her social media channels, does not mention Shell or its products in the video. Neither she nor other influencers in Shell’s “Performance Unbound” campaign responded to requests for comment.

Shell recently advertised for a “head of digital amplification platforms” to oversee its social media channels and “integrate gaming and immersive experiences” into its strategies, partnering with Meta, YouTube, X, TikTok and LinkedIn. The Financial Times reported last year that Shell was hiring a manager for its TikTok channel, a platform used predominantly by young people.

In a campaign this summer called Ultimate Road Trips, Shell worked with gamers to create customised online racecourses — complete with Shell petrol stations — within the video game Fortnite. It then sponsored influencers to upload videos of themselves playing the game to the streaming platform Twitch. Instagram ads have also promoted a Shell mobile driving game, available on Apple’s AppStore.

Shell promotion for Ultimate Road Trips
Shell and gamers customised online racecourses with the video game Fortnite

Young people are more likely than any other group to say climate change is an emergency, according to a 2021 UN study, while Pew Research polling shows 66 per cent of Generation Z Americans, born after 1996, oppose new offshore oil and gas drilling — more than any other group.

“They’re targeting young people because they want to build positive associations among a group of people that otherwise want nothing to do with them,” said Duncan Meisel, director of Clean Creatives, which calls on advertisers and PR companies to cut ties with fossil fuel companies.

Shell said its global advertising and marketing campaigns “use a range of channels and initiatives to explain what Shell is doing throughout the world in both traditional fuels and renewable technologies as the energy transition progresses”, adding that any marketing of its fuels and lubricants “is obviously targeted at people of driving age”.

Shell’s gaming initiatives focus on fossil fuel products such as petrol and motor oil, not renewable power. Businesses are free to advertise their oil products to those below driving age as fossil fuels are not covered by legal-age restrictions of the kind that exist for alcohol, gambling and e-cigarettes in the UK.

Companies do not publish numbers on their ad spending but some data providers estimate that Shell is the highest spender on digital advertising among fossil fuel companies they have tracked.

COMvergence, a media spending analyst, estimates Shell will spend $270mn on global media in 2023, with digital media making up 58 per cent of this. BP is projected to spend $219mn, 58 per cent of which is also digital, followed by ExxonMobil on $96mn.

Bar chart of Projected 2023 global media spend ($mn) showing that Shell outspends its rivals on advertising

Sensor Tower, which tracks digital advertising in the US, estimates that Shell has spent a combined $3.8mn on TikTok and Twitch this year, earning more than 348mn impressions (the number of times its ads loaded on users’ pages), according to analysis by research group Media Matters.

TikTok did not respond to requests for comment and does not share user demographics. More than 70 per cent of viewers on Twitch, on which Shell has spent just under $700,000 this year according to Sensor Tower, are aged 18 to 35 but it did not comment on how many are under driving age.

Other oil majors’ efforts include a TikTok challenge launched last year by Chevron’s Asian subsidiary Caltex, with users encouraged to perform a rap including the lyrics “soon as my tank hit three-quarter or less, imma hit up the station at Caltex”.

The Advertising Standards Agency, the UK’s advertising watchdog, has banned recent ads from Shell, Spanish energy group Repsol and Malaysia’s Petronas for not providing enough context about the impact of their business as a whole when making sustainability claims, while the US and EU are also strengthening their stance on “greenwashing”.

Since the start of the year, Shell’s new chief executive Wael Sawan has outlined plans to maintain oil output, expand the gas business and trim parts of its low-carbon portfolio, while insisting it remains committed to becoming a “multi-energy” company and cutting emissions.

Under UK consumer protection law underpinning the competition watchdog’s Green Claims Code, companies should take care not to exploit consumers who may be vulnerable due to their age or credulity.

Some want stricter controls. “Exploiting youth culture to advertise fossil fuels is a cynical tactic . . . to engage young people in the destruction of their own future,” said Veronica Wignall, co-director at the campaign group Adfree Cities, who called for a blanket ban on advertising by polluting companies.

Still, Geraint Lloyd-Taylor, a partner in the advertising and marketing team at London-based law firm Lewis Silkin, said the advertising did not appear to pose any specific legal risks.

“The point of balance is hugely relevant, as everybody accepts you can’t just turn off fossil fuels. All these companies have net zero 2050 [decarbonisation] plans, so I don’t know what problem it would solve to ban them from promoting themselves.”

However, he acknowledged the balance might shift. “While it was fine several years ago for fast-food chains to promote their brands to young people . . . attitudes have now hardened [in favour of] bans. It might happen in the future that the climate around energy companies will be the same.”

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