Shell Pioneers the Art of Consumer Misdirection

Shell’s Nitrogen Enriched (V-Power) Gasoline!  Yay! We’re all saved from that menacing “gunk” that’s been making our lives miserable!  Yeah, maybe not so much saved as annoyed by pretentious acting, over-simplified explanations and borderline criminal consumer manipulations.  The above TV spot is one of the latest in a series continually introducing Shell’s Nitrogen Enriched Gasoline.

Right off the bat there are things that annoy the hell out of me about this ad series, not the least of which is Laurie (Naughton) Okin and her terrible acting skills.  If you’ll care to remember the first in this near reality based, information type commercial, Ms. Okin, playing a lab coat wearing pseudo-scientist (a gasologist possibly?), explained in her best and most scientific voice how “gunk” is robbing our engines of power (of course that was after she rudely cut off her male counterpart mid-sentence, for no apparent reason)…but have no fear, Shell is here!  They’ve got the answer and it’s Nitrogen Enrichment!

Not that this was the first use of such an unscientifically accurate technical term as “gunk”, as we saw in Castrol GTX Engine Oil’s little bubbles of unnamed “liquid engineered” goodness that saves us all from horrible engine “sludge” soakings, which as their commercial says: “is only funny when it happens to someone else”.

I’m not sure which offends me more; their use of the most ineffectually simplistic terms to describe what are actually complex but easily understood chemical reactions, all of course, in an effort to swindle you into thinking that their gasoline is more effective at…”fighting gunk”, than the next guys.  Or the notion that adding a nitrogen detergent to their gasoline was voluntary or even done with good intentions.

Warning – Science Content Ahead

Internal combustion engines burn gasoline inside engine cylinders to create controlled explosions from a finely tuned and compressed fuel and air mixture, which causes the piston in the cylinder to rise rapidly away from the explosion, which in turn causes a crank shaft to turn, vicariously transferring the power of each successive explosion into the continuous operation of the engine.  It’s not as complicated as one might think, and believe it or not “gunk” is an actual problem our engines have to deal with (though calling it “gunk” doesn’t do it justice, nor does it make it seem marketably cute).

A bi-product of these controlled explosions is -when you mix oxygen with a carbon based fossil fuel and burn it- the creation of carbon monoxide gas (CO), also known as carbonic oxide. The majority of the CO gas created through this chemical reaction is released into the atmosphere through the vehicle’s exhaust system (and subsequently remains in the atmosphere for more than a hundred years, interfering with photons (light and heat) from the sun and contributing to global warming), but because of the violent nature of the explosion small amounts of pure carbon are left behind, and over time these carbon molecules build up on the surfaces of the cylinder, piston and valves.  Too much build up eventually causes efficiency issues in the engine, such as blow-by and poor valve seating.


Laurie (Naughton) Okin

Ironically, the mechanical issues caused by carbon build up, make the production and release of CO gas even worse (thought of as engine inefficiency), which is why the EPA (the US Environmental Protection Agency) has mandated that all gasoline manufacturers (refiners) must include detergent agents in their gasoline mixtures, in order to reduce the amount of CO gas generated by the growing number of cars on the road.[1] This mandate has become an international standard, enforced by most developed nations.

What this means is, Shell isn’t doing anything that their competitors aren’t also doing by law, except for the notion that most fuel companies use other chemicals to do what Shell claims can be achieved with nitrogen.  Though there are scientific arguments against that idea, but which are too complex to cover here.

Here’s the coup in all this sideshow trickery; the number one reason that Shell International has invested so much time and money into the development and marketing of nitrogen based fuel detergents, is misdirection on a global scale.  Shell has declared their active opposition to the development of biofuels and solar and wind power generation, and in a concerted effort to make sure you don’t put two-and-two together, they’ve concocted this ad campaign complete with a deliberate attempt to fool viewers into thinking that they have the conservation of the environment, and your bank account in mind.[2]

Suffice it to say, the practised smiles, fake lab coats, and consumer buzz words flashing across your TV screen along side that ironically environmental Shell logo, are not for your benefit.  They are specifically for the benefit of Shell International’s profit margin and the satisfaction of their investors.

Think twice…please.

[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Gasoline Detergent Additives Enforcement and Recordkeeping Requirements.” July 16, 2008. (April 6, 2009)

[2] Hadhazy, Adam. “Shell oil company bails on most alternative energy research.” Scientific American. March 20, 2009. (March 30, 2009)

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