Oil executive Herb Schmertz pioneered a proactive, sometimes pugilistic approach to corporate communications that drew as much admiration as it did criticism
On Thursday, January 13, 1972, the 41st page of The New York Times carried nothing but opinion pieces from outside contributors. Or at least it looked that way at first glance. But the bottom-right quarter of the page was actually an advertisement. Bereft of images, boasting a bold, eye-catching title supported by 11 well-written paragraphs, the only giveaway it was an ad was the large Mobil logo beneath it.
It wasn’t the first quarter-page advertisement to run on the Times’ op-ed page – banks had taken out space – nor was it even the oil company’s first advertisement in that slot. But the ad was notable because it looked and sounded like its editorial neighbors. It was one of the first “advertorials” to appear in a major newspaper, and it marked the start of one the most famous communication campaigns to employ them. With the regularity of a weekly column, a Mobil ad appeared in that same bottom-right quarter on the Times’ op-ed page practically every Thursday for the rest of the decade.
The man said to be instrumental in writing, editing and placing these ads was Herbert Schmertz, a vice president at Mobil and head of its public affairs department, whom the Washington Post called in 1979 “the most powerful, most successful public relations man in America.” Mr. Schmertz passed away earlier this year at the age of 87. The advertorials he helped write appeared in most national newspapers, and remain perhaps his most enduring legacy.
Seldom reusing the same text, most Mobil advertorials followed a similar formula: a punchy headline – “All in favor of unemployment, please rise,” for example – the Mobil logo at the bottom, and paragraphs that carried the clarity, confidence, and opinion of an op-ed. While the US grappled with an energy crisis and sky-high gas prices for much of the 1970s, and while oil companies faced sharp criticism from politicians and citizens alike, Mobil used these ads – reportedly paying $3,500 ($20,000 today) for the weekly slot – to tell Times readers its side of the story. Mobil defended the profits oil companies were making, lambasted national energy policies, touted the jobs the oil industry created, and reminded people about the development oil powered.
Their brilliance lay not just in the quality of their composition, but in the new approach to corporate communications they heralded. Advertorials bypassed journalists and editors – the gatekeepers of what did or didn’t appear in print – and allowed Mobil to make its case directly to the public. Mobil didn’t use the space to try to sell a product, but instead remained focused on explaining their point of view on national – and often divisive – issues. They did so with a look and tone that matched the op-eds alongside, putting the oil giant’s arguments on equal footing with the news stories that so often criticized them. And they worked. “He has given Mobil a glistening image, unlike those other companies in the industry,” the Post wrote in 1979.
Detractors called the practice dishonest, others called it counter-productive. In 1988, Richard Cheney, a PR executive, said, “To go out and argue with people in public, it’s like seeing two people fighting in the street. You’re not going to take sides, you just want them to stop.”