A familiar concept in science fiction books and films is the idea of aliens disguising themselves as human beings to make the people of earth feel comfortable until it is too late and they have gained the upper hand.
BP's use of Darryl Willis in its TV commercials got me thinking about the many science fiction novels I read as a teenager. His calm, easygoing, reassuring manner on TV strikes just the chord BP needs as oil flows unchecked 5,000 feet below the Gulf of Mexico.
As an adman, my first reaction is that it is simply brilliant. Darryl Willis has the kind of stage presence that generally only comes from central casting.
He is confident, but not cocky. He conveys a certain authority and his credentials carry weight not just because he is a BP executive, which he is, but because he also comes off as someone with skin in the game…a concerned resident.
And -- in a juxtaposition that has to have been a reward for years of living right or conceived during a frantic, desperate meeting between BP's top execs and its PR and marketing consultants -- Darryl Willis is everything BP is not at a time when it so desperately needs to be: American and local.
Oh, and one more thing: he is African American. African Americans are the largest minority population in the states most affected by the spill -- Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and parts of Florida. In fact, African Americans are actually the majority population in many of the counties closest to the spill site.
Flashback to 2003: Having suffered the almost unthinkable, a devastating terrorist attack on American soil on September 11, 2001, the U.S. government is trying to make the case for war. Our Secretary of State is Colin Powell. He has a powerful, reassuring presence. He is a bona fide (Purple Heart) war hero and is a credible and influential voice to the American people and to the world. It was Colin Powell who addressed the United Nations and told us that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was developing nuclear capability.
We are still debating whether he was misinformed or deliberately misled the General Assembly. It can be argued that we were swayed by the spokesman.
The advertising and public relations battle BP is engaged in is critical to the company's survival. It must at all times frame the situation and favorably package it for public consumption. BP has to position itself as in control and on the job with assistance for all who need it and a plan and a commitment to put everything back into place.
BP has successfully purchased a number of search terms so that many search engine queries lead you the BP site where they can focus your attention on their spending and the clean-up effort. No part of this strategy is more important than Darryl Willis. He is a convincing voice, telling us that BP cares and is responding to those who are being harmed.
Darryl Willis was born and raised in New Orleans. His job at BP until recently was as a geophysicist, leading a team of scientists to determine where to drill for oil onshore.
The CEO of BP is Tony Hayward. He is a well-educated British citizen who has had a series of gaffes during this crisis. He minimized the severity of the spill, complained that he wanted his life back, and went to watch his yacht race while the oil continued to pour into the Gulf. So Hayward publicly removed himself from the supervision of the operation.
Darryl Willis wears polo shirts and always says the right things: His father was in the oil business. He has cousins who fish. His mom lost her home to Hurricane Katrina. In addition to the TV ads, he is featured in newspaper ads and has made the rounds on television news shows.
Detractors say he is a shill for the company, that he is allowing himself to be used so for the benefit of BP. Supporters say Willis is sincere and authentic and that the company is tapping into a great asset who is both reassuring and effective. African Americans on the web seem to be split between those who are wary and mistrust the intentions of BP to those who are proud to see a Black man with all of that responsibility.
BP has a long way to go. The effects of this spill will linger for many years. It is not certain that BP will even stay out of bankruptcy court, much less see the cleanup through until the end.
Having found a spokesperson who can connect with the people -- whether you believe it was fate or fabrication -- has helped to keep BP in the game. In the end however, marketing, advertising and public relations will not save them; that will take years of responsible decisions carried out flawlessly.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Larry D. Woodard is president and CEO of Graham Stanley Advertising, a full-service advertising agency based in New York City. He is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies New York Council and the recipient of many prestigious industry awards, including two O'Toole Awards for Agency of the Year, the London International Award, Gold Effie, Telly, Mobius, Addy's and the Cannes Gold Lion. A blogger and a frequent public speaker, Woodard enjoys discussing the intersection of media, politics, entertainment and technology.