Why did the Financial Times refuse Amnesty’s Shell ad?

Discouraging news from Amnesty.

The Human Rights group had planned a major campaign focused on oil giant Shell’s annual general meeting at London’s Barbican Centre today (18 May). A key part of this campaign was to be a full page advert in the Financial Times, portraying a champagne flute filled with oil.

amnesty shell ad

But just as the working day came to a close yesterday, Amnesty staff received notice from the Financial Times that the ‘pink un would not be carrying the advert after all.

According to Index’s sources, the newspaper variously claimed that it was wary of libel claims and that the ad might be in poor taste, as some readers might mistake the oil in the glass for blood.

Taste issues aside, would it be legitimate for the FT to worry about libel? While Amnesty insists it “gave [the FT] written reassurances that we would take full responsibility for the comments and opinions stated in the advertisement”, the fact is that if the FT had published the ad, it could, potentially be liable in any proceedings.

But it’s extremely unlikely that Shell would sue. The company is quite keen on promoting its social credentials, and even a successful trip to court would more than likely involve an unpleasant trawl through the unfortunate effects of the oil industry.

Was it a commercial decision? Again, who knows? Big oil companies tend not to be so thin-skinned that they would pull money from a prestige publication such as the FT merely because it had carried a critical advert. Trafigura may have trampled all over free expression, but the issue there was company documents and detailed reports, not a generally critical ad.

It is genuinely quite hard to think of a good reason for the FT to pull this ad.

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