Mr. Bill's creator upset with oil industry over La. wetlands

Sunday, June 12, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- Mr. Bill is giving a big "Nooooo!" to appearing in any more public-awareness ads to save Louisiana's wetlands because the creator of the clay character believes the campaign is selling out to big oil companies.

Walter Williams, who created the character for NBC's "Saturday Night Live" three decades ago, said he was concerned that the America's Wetland campaign is taking too much of a slant toward the petroleum industry -- the very people accused of having a hand in destroying the state's wetlands in the first place.

The last straw came when TV spots featuring Mr. Bill showed up in Shell Oil Co.-sponsored kiosks at tourist centers throughout Louisiana. Shell paid for the kiosks and the company's logo is prominently displayed on them.

"If they had taken the Shell stickers and logos off that would have been fine," Williams said.

"I think what he doesn't want is for his Mr. Bill character to be anything commercial," said Valsin Marmillion, who runs the campaign. "We respect the right of anyone who helps us out in the campaign."

Even though Mr. Bill is pulling out, Williams said the campaign can still use previously produced ads as public service announcements on TV and as educational tools.

The public-private initiative was kicked off by former governor Mike Foster to sell Americans on the idea that Louisiana's wetlands need billions of dollars in federal help. Levees, canals, and oil and gas exploration have been blamed for causing Louisiana to lose 1,900 square miles of wetlands -- roughly the area of Delaware -- since the 1930s and another 700 square miles could disappear unless something is done.

Two years after Foster unveiled the campaign, it has taken on a host of sponsors and it's been instrumental in unifying Louisiana's message around the slogan "America's Wetland: Keep It Alive!"

Public and private money has gone into paying for a documentary, brochures, TV spots and bracelets. An "America's Wetland Day" was declared by Gov. Kathleen Blanco. "America's Wetland" flags have gone up in front of city halls around the state and at corporate offices.

Williams charged that Shell is using the campaign -- to which the oil company donated $800,000 -- as a public relations move to masquerade as a green company.

"Shell has already made the Estuarians their mascots," he complained, referring to a set of cartoon animals and fish native to Louisiana called "The Estuarians," or "Estys," that interact with Mr. Bill on the TV spots. The Estuarians are being used to educate children about the wetlands and what it means to lose them.

Darci Sinclair, a Shell spokeswoman, said in a statement that Shell is "committed to operate in a socially responsible" manner and wants to protect "the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem."

She added that the company respects Williams' "right to remove his property from the America's Wetland educational kiosks." Shell will "continue its strong partnership" with the campaign, she said.

"While the America's Wetland campaign is a great effort to educate people about our wetlands problems, the fact that Shell wants to green-wash its image is of concern," said Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club's Delta Chapter. "Shell has a history of damaging the environment in the United States and around the world and all the advertising to the opposite is untrue."

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