How we enlisted the public to help destroy Shell's ad campaign

A fake P.R. effort shocks even its own creators—twice! And then, less jubilantly, a third time....

(For the 2020 postscript, visit our story of Doctors for Opening America.)

In 2012, as part of helping Shell to (mis)launch their Arctic drill rig, we decided to "help" Shell with their "Let's Go" ad campaign too. ("Let's Go" was Shell's profoundly misguided overall advertising slogan, that we thought perfect for "promoting" their ultimately failed push to drill in the Arctic.)

First, we created a website, ArcticReady.com, complete with a game called "Angry Bergs," in which the (impossible) goal was to destroy icebergs before they destroyed your drill rig. But the main feature of ArcticReady.com was an invitation to the public, supposedly from Shell itself, to generate their own ads for Arctic drilling from an uploaded image and slogan.

We announced the website in a somewhat roundabout way: as part of a fake Shell press release denouncing... us! In it, "Shell" took special pains to point out that the "perpetrators" had even very horribly created a fake website, ArcticReady.com—i.e. we pointed out it was a fake.

Delighted readers visited ArcticReady.com and—clearly against "Shell's" wishes—tweeted it out as real. Thousands more users—thrilled to see Shell committing such an obvious gaffe—flooded the site, and Twitter, with generated "Let's Go" ads. To build the "gotcha" effect even further, a very angry and incompetent "Shell intern" (inspired by one angry PR head we'd met) threatened many of the ad submitters with legal action, ensuring yet more tweets and ads. (The "intern" was eventually automated into a twitterbot, back when you could do that sort of thing.)

Most users got the joke at some point—and then flooded the site with yet more ads! Users also voted on their favorite ads, and the winner—"You can't run your SUV on 'cute'"—was put up on a billboard in Houston right near Shell's US headquarters.

The media quickly exposed the whole thing, of course—resulting in a complete story that helped publicize Shell's wildly unpopular Arctic drilling, as part of the (ultimately successful) campaign to stop it. 

The end? No! Several weeks later—long after many articles had been written about the site—ArcticReady.com sprang back to life, with an even bigger new wave of submissions, bringing a whole new reveal and a whole new wave of publicity. We still have no idea how this happened.

Finally, a few months later, Shell's real-life Arctic drilling ground to a halt due partly to greedy incompetence and partly to public outrage (aka "an unpredictable federal regulatory environment"). And though the media had fully exposed our campaign—twice!—the fake ads were up to stay... so that even today an image search on "Shell Let's Go" or even just "Shell ad campaign" is dominated by the hilarious creations of people fed up and disgusted with Shell's definition of business as usual.

2020 postscript: The story of how we tried to replicate this effect in 2020 may show the terrifying difference between before-Trump and after-Trump times. Yet another reason that when fascism threatens, it's time to get serious.