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Why BP shouldn’t pump money into Gulf coast tourism budgets

With Barack Obama poised to repeal the trifling $75m ceiling on BP’s liability for cleaning up the oil spill, supplicants have wasted no time in bringing their financial demands directly before the oil giant.

Most of these demands for compensation seem entirely reasonable. A fishing industry brought to its knees by the Deepwater Horizon blow-out needs restitution. Conservationists grappling with an environmental disaster about to afflict the ecologically-sensitive Mississippi and Louisiana coastline are desperate for every clean-up dollar they can get. The $20bn local tourist industry faces massive lay-offs and a collapsing infrastructure…

But here’s the bizarre bit. The US Gulf states believe that not only should BP pay compensation for their ruined tourism industry, it should also provide a massive injection of funding for their marketing budgets. From Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour downwards, the general view of officialdom seems to be that BP should dig generously into it coffers to run a series of reassurance campaigns pointing out that the beaches remain open for business. BP has responded fairly generously so far to proposals, with the result that the financial demands being made on it are steepling.

While sympathising with the plight of the Gulf of Mexico tourism industry, I think there are two fundamental flaws to this “marketing initiative”. The first is that, with no end in sight to the oil leakage, a message of reassurance is pretty pointless – and may even be counter-productive. Sure, the beaches may be open for business right now, but what about in two months’ time? Personally, I would be very underwhelmed if, having bought the reassurance message, I were to find myself sharing beach space with a dead porpoise and several tarry sea birds flapping about disconsolately.

The second point is this. Just because BP has a moral and legal obligation to clean up the mess and compensate those who have been blighted by it doesn’t make it the ideal paymaster for a massive tourism booster campaign. Quite the contrary. BP will be in the brand doghouse for years to come thanks to its incompetence in handling the Deepwater disaster. And the fact that it is a British company (as opposed to a US one) exacerbates matters. The Brits, from James Mason onwards, already provide perfect casting material for Nazis in Hollywood movies. What BP has, or hasn’t, done will only deepen that stereotypical prejudice. The last thing BP needs to be seen doing is “manipulating” the local tourism industry with a whitewash campaign.

In this crisis, the lower profile its assistance the better.

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