When the TSA started holding airports and airlines hostage almost nine years ago, my tolerance for driving distance increased from two hours to ten. With only two reliable flights out of DAY to anywhere — the first one and the last — what used to be a same-day trip has now expanded to a minimum of three days. So, I’ve gotten to driving pretty much anywhere I need to go.
All those trips need to be powered by gasoline. When I am on the road, I don’t just pull over to any gas station I find open and willing to sell me gas. I pull into a gas station that is clean, the gas is of reliable quality, the credit card machines work and that have name-brand recognition. Being two to ten hours away from home with a tank of bad gas is just not my idea of a fun time.
And most of the time that meant pulling into a BP station. BP had made it’s retail franchises like the McDonald’s of the gas world. And because of that, they got my business. Because of that, the local owners got my business for more than just gas. The road has it’s own demands. We’ll come back to this later.
As this Gulf Oil Gush produces more bad will toward BP, there is a movement afoot to stem the rising tide of boycotts against BP stations. The argument goes as such:
The BP station is independently owned by one of your neighbors and by boycotting, you are hurting your own local economy. These are the people who support your local baseball team, are members of your PTA and are just trying to make a living in this otherwise horrible economy. Moreover, it is not BP that caused the greater problem as we ALL are at fault with our demand for low priced gasoline and cheap goods and services. Shouldn’t we all be sharing the blame here?
As a small business owner who hated +$4/gal gas a few years back, the argument almost worked on me. These are powerful statements and are, for the most part, true.* I wouldn’t want my customers turning on me because of something a corporation did for which I have no control.
Let’s look a little more closely at a couple of “truths” about boycotting BP stations.
We are all at fault for demanding low prices on everything the petroleum industry produces
Companies make products to sell and marketing companies create ways to make consumer want them. And more and more and more. Price is just one tool in their arsenal. Since no company stays in business for very long selling a product that costs more than it sells for, they find ways to subsidize production costs or cut quality. The consumer does not set the price;** the marketer sets the price. Low-priced gasoline and the subsequent purchase of our SUVs and excessive driving habits, etc are all by-products of marketers wanting to sell more crap. We’re just dumb saps falling for the consumer lifestyle they bludgeon us with.
If we actually had to pay for the real cost of gas, we would. If we had to pay the real cost of food, we would. We would buy fewer cars and they would be smaller and more fuel-efficient. We would buy less food and waste less. (How many people don’t eat the entire $12.00 hot dog at a ball park?) Without cheap gas, the auto industry would have put more money into developing fuel-efficient technology instead of flashy car ads for TV. But it was easier to convince ordinary people who did not have the money to buy a car to finance it and lobby tax subsidies from governements to keep fuel costs low.
It is clever trying to make us all accept communal blame for the Gulf Oil Gush, but it simply isn’t true. The oil industry created low prices to sell more stuff to make more profit. The American consumer simply accepted the lower prices because there was no alternative. And we became addicted because that is what human beings do. Had the oil prices remained high to their true cost, we would have also adapted because, surprisingly, that is what human beings do.
The BP station owner is not at fault. Don’t hate on him; he is one of us.
Again, this is yet another marketing ploy to keep us from boycotting or worse, descending upon the station with pitch forks and torches is a fit of oil rage. The BP owner IS at fault for accepting the franchise, co-op ad dollars, brand good-will and increased sales due to product trust (see my road trip stuff above.) If this were not true, then having a BP sign and branding on the pumps would not matter. We would feel perfectly happy to buy our gasoline from Joe’s Gas and Pump Stump. But we don’t trust Joe. Joe probably waters down his gas to make more profit. BP doesn’t; they are reputable. In short, the station owner benefitted from BP’s marketing. They just happened to have bet on a horse that tripped and broke its leg. Or maybe they didn’t really have a choice as BP was going to put them out of business if they didn’t sign. But nobody forced them to stay in the retail gas business. We hope.
For those of us old enough to remember the Vietnam War, we understand how socially dangerous it was to ask, “Do you support the war effort?” So does our government; so much so that when the Gulf War came around in 1991, it was not even a question. The position went from “support the war” to “support our troops.” Regardless of whether you thought the Gulf War was just or not, you couldn’t possibly be against the troops. It was a very clever marketing message that was a no-win to disagree with. And the same message was used at 9/11 with the endless stream of “God Bless America” performances and unchecked anti-freedoms legislation by the US Congress.
And now the same tactics are being employed by our governments, media and BP to keep the citizens from becoming angry. We can’t show up to protest in front of an oil rig, but there is a BP station in every neighborhood. The problem was simple to define; how will governments and BP prevent the citizens from taking out their anger at the pump? We’ll make the station owner one of them and make them feel stupid and trite by convincing them they are all at fault and they don’t understand modern economics.
And for the most part, it is working. If someone starts a “Boycott BP” group on Facebook, they are immediately ridiculed for not understanding how business works, that the owner is really not part of BP, that they are only hurting their local economy, that they are part of the bigger problem so they are being a hypocrite! Nobody likes to be sneered at in public by the media and influential voices for being “unsophisticated.” (As an example, look what they are doing to Alvin Greene.)
You may jeer at me and call me unsophisticated, but I am still not going to buy gas from my local BP station. I’m not going to be joining any “Boycott BP” groups on Facebook either because that is just lazy protesting. But I am going to continue to reduce my footprint and support local business people who know my name and appreciate every sale. Even when I know I could buy it for less somewhere else.
And hope for the day when I no longer need to buy gasoline from BP or anyone else.
*Except for that supporting the local baseball team. My local BP station always turned down my request for a sponsorship, saying they would get business anyway from teams traveling in. I’m not bitter. Much.
**Next time you are in a grocery store, try asking to pay MORE than the listed price for that loaf of bread. There is no way to do it. Consumer don’t demand low price. We are convinced by smart marketers and media that high prices is what keep us from buying stuff. It’s an easy argument; marketers and media always take the easy road.