What is Branding?Edit

A Brand is some type of visual representation, whether through words, images, colors, or shapes, that is used to uniquely identify a company, product, or good. Branding of products is not only a method by which to distinguish one product from another, but is a way to increase public awareness of that product. Branding is especially important when discussing issues at the socio-technical interface; a brand is a powerful tool that can sway public perception of a technology.

Examples of well known brands.

Hydraulic Fracturing vs. FrackingEdit

One of the biggest issues facing our society today is the development of alternative energy sources to decrease carbon emissions and potential climate change. As oil and gas sources dwindle, people hope to find more "unconventional" sources to produce these fossil fuels[1]. One such unconventional source is shale gas, extracted via hydraulic fracturing. There are many environmental and social impacts that incite debate over the technology. Supporters of hydraulic fracturing explain the process as one in which safe and controlled additives or fluids are sent into the shale layer of the earth's crust, pushing the natural gas up through the well, and into a facility or storage vessel above ground. Opponents of fracking, on the other hand, focus on the use of potential hazardous chemicals leaking into ground water, as well as excessive water consumption leading to shortages.

Social PerspectivesEdit

Social groups and organizations participating in the debate of this technology draw on many of the same environmental impacts; however each spins them in a way to brand the technology as either a positive or negative process.


By far the largest and most vocal proponents of this technology are major American oil companies. More modest proponents are environmental departments of states in which hydraulic fracturing is practiced.

Chevron's ApproachEdit

Chevron’s website currently runs an article accompanied by a video explaining the process of hydraulic fracturing. At a glance, the video's first image appears to depict trees or other foliage. The viewer later learns that the image is actually a hydraulic fracturing well. This subtle imagery could indicate Chevron's attempt at branding hydraulic fracturing as a nature-friendly, well-controlled process.

The video features still shots of scientists discussing complex diagrams of natural gas reservoirs. These images of scientists are presented in such a way as to brand hydraulic fracturing as a technology that has been carefully researched by experts in the field.

Throughout the video there are panoramic scenes of pristine American landscapes, mountains and vast forests dotted with comparatively small natural gas production sites. This imagery helps to emphasize that hydraulic fracturing is well-established and that Chevron is invested in ensuring environmental and water quality. The imagery aids in Chevron's branding of the technology as natural and green.

The Language of Oil CompaniesEdit

Like Chevron, many other oil companies participating in hydraulic fracturing publish articles or webpages to explain the technology. A survey of these articles published by nine of the top U.S. oil producers found the following word usage [2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10]:

Word Choice Word Count Synonym Word Count
Hydraulic Fracturing 85 Frack/Frac 23
Natural Gas 78 Methane 3
Fluid/Additives 50 Chemicals 23

The word fracking is used infrequently due to the anti-fracking movement's success in branding the word as synonymous with evil corporate profiteering at the expense of the environment. While natural gas and methane are both names for the product, the former sounds more environmentally friendly. The word chemicals follows the same pattern, as it evokes negative feelings. These word choices show how companies are attempting to assign a friendlier brand to the technology.

Ohio Department of Natural ResourcesEdit

Another clear proponent of hydraulic fracturing is the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). The agency's webpage uses tactics similar to those of oil companies in its presentation of the technology.

ODNR's page on hydraulic fracturing is titled "Shale Development"[11]. Similar to several oil companies' pages, the ODNR never refers to the technology as fracking, opting instead for a more positive-sounding brand name. Beyond explicit re-branding of the technology, the ODNR assures readers that environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing are minimal. For instance, the ODNR states that while water is a "key ingredient" in hydraulic fracturing, the technology poses no risk of drinking water shortages. ODNR informs readers that water usage in a hydraulic fracturing well is comparable to that in more familiar water intensive practices, e.g. golf course maintenance[12].

Unlike the oil companies, the ODNR does not stand to profit directly from hydraulic fracturing development. The department's support of the technology is the result of its mission statement: "To ensure a balance between wise use and protection of our natural resources for the benefit of all"[13]. The ODNR's subtle re-branding efforts represent its attempts to ease public concerns over a technology it has deemed to be safe, and therefore beneficial to the state of Ohio.


Social OrganizationsEdit


In 2011, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), released its recommendations on fracking, "allowing the practice in most areas of the state outside of the New York City and Syracuse watersheds" [14]. This exclusion of the New York City watershed potentially communicates remaining uncertainty as to the safety of the technology. A coalition of 49 national and state level social interest groups rose up and called for a state-wide ban on the process. Of these groups included Democracy for America, Frack Action, Friends of the Earth, and the Center for Health, Environment & Justice. The coalition also sent a petition to Governor Cuomo, signed by "'nearly 20,000 New Yorkers...in the first 24 hours,'" according to the Campaign Manager of CREDO Action, another participating organization [14].

These organizations rely heavily on language, similar to the oil companies, but to promote fracking as a harmful and hazardous technology. They each publish articles, press releases, and letters to politicians, emphasizing the dangerous impacts of fracking. A survey of these publications by 6 social organizations found the following word usage[15][16][17][18][19][20]:

Word Choice Word Count Synonym Word Count
Hydraulic Fracturing 6 Frack/Frac 80
Natural Gas 32 Methane 14
Fluid/Additives 3 Chemicals 14

While their motive for choosing the words frack and chemicals is obvious, the higher frequency of describing the produced fuel as natural gas instead of methane is also deliberate. Many of the organizations described the fuel as "natural" gas, where the use of quotes directly implies their skepticism of how natural this fuel really is.


Aside from large organizations, individual citizens have also begun raising their voices in concern. Maxime Daigle of New Brunswick, spent his career as an oil worker in Alberta, British Columbia and across the U.S. In January 2012, he expressed his major concerns with the industry, having seen it from the inside: "Some rig managers...make you contain contamination...But I've seen many times where you're told just to cover it with dirt, fresh dirt so nobody sees it"[21]. Daigle effectively draws on his own first-hand experience to further perpetuate the negative branding of fracking.

In 2011, Frederick Mayer, a self described disabled veteran and resident of Candor, NY, made a video of himself lighting his kitchen sink water on fire. He sent the video to Toxics Targeting, an environmental database service. Mayer lived near the Marcellus Shale Formation, a large natural gas deposit, and claimed the drilling is what led to a natural gas leak in his drinking water. He shared how he reported the problem to the DEC, yet no one came to inspect his water or fix the gas leak[22]. Frederick Mayer not only added to the negative branding of fracking and its potential environmental impacts, but also highlighted the fact that even environmental groups are not doing as much as they should to help. Describing himself as a disabled veteran, while having nothing to do with the issue, Mayer also associates fracking with harming vulnerable groups.

A Political Case StudyEdit

For decades, many federal policy breaks have been granted to oil and gas companies in response to “industrial, legislative and lobbying pressures"[23][24]. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 included a controversial amendment that exempted hydraulic fracturing from part of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The 2005 Act “inserted new language to exempt ‘the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities'”[25]. This amendment became known as the Halliburton Loophole, named after one of the largest oil producers in the world.

While the Halliburton Loophole relieves the Federal Government of regulating hydraulic fracturing, states are still free to impose regulations as they see fit. In June, 2011 the Ohio State Senate passed Senate Bill 315 granting the ODNR authority to regulate state-wide hydraulic fracturing[26]. ODNR Director James Zehringer championed the Bill saying, “If Ohioans lose confidence in our ability to protect public health and safety, this potential boom will fizzle”[27]. While both ODNR and large oil companies are strong supporters of hydraulic fracturing, Zehringer recognizes that without social support, the technology cannot be successful. He skillfully brands the ODNR as an organization that is concerned with citizen well-being in an attempt to increase acceptance of the technology, particularly by the opposition.


One of the most important factors in determining public acceptance of a technology is the way in which relevant social groups develop a brand through use of language and imagery. Participants in debates will try to brand the technology in a way that suits their opinions and needs. Opponents have branded the word fracking and played off of its negative sound to brand the technology as a whole. Supporters have tried to invoke the use of other words and imagery to brand the technology in a more positive light. Supporters are not trying to rebrand the term fracking, but instead to associate it with different language. Once a brand has been established, rebranding societal perception of a technology is very difficult.

Opportunities for Further StudyEdit

Future teams may be interested in augmenting this chapter by further investigating political outcomes of this technology. Court cases and legislation, such as the 1997 case of LEAF vs. EPA or the defeat of the 2009 NAT GAS Senate bill, may prove to be areas of great interest within the socio-technical interface of hydraulic fracturing. It may also be of interest to research the effect of language on the success of legislation. Additionally, future teams may look into other terms used to describe this technology.


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  14. a b Food & Water Watch. (2011, July 7). 49 groups call on Cuomo for statewide fracking ban [Press release].
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Last modified on 14 December 2012, at 19:10