By Bill Moore
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I want out! pleads the poster of Uncle Sam.
And what is the familiar caricature that personifies the United States wanting out of? According to 69-year-old Stan Cotton, the co-founder of the Foreign Oil Independence League, it is the nation's dangerous and growing dependence on imported oil, especially from the Middle East.
The retired advertising idea man is on a personal quest to not only make more Americans aware of how dependent we've become on oil imports, now supplying over sixty percent of our daily consumption compared to only about 35% in the 1970s, but just as importantly, that there are home-grown alternatives including ethanol and biodiesel.
Cotton, who has been an ad business maverick all of his career, told me that he began his personal campaign in the wake for the events of September 11, 2001, moving emotionally from shock to anger after learning that the attacks had been funded by oil income, a significant portion of which came unwittingly from American consumers to fuel their cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles.
"I wanted to do something constructive with my anger," he told me. "I'm a retired ad guy and the Marines wouldn't have me. The Navy wouldn't let me fly F-18s, but I could contribute time and money to try to create very stylish, in-your-face patriotic propaganda."
For Cotton, who makes his home in Southern California, blame for the current situation can be laid squarely at the door of politicians going back to the 1970s oil boycotts, which he said should have been a wake-up call to the nation. Instead of getting serious about shifting to alternatives, they cut the budgets on renewable energy programs and allowed the nation to import ever-increasing quantities of cheap Saudi oil.
"I just reasoned that the sooner we stopped denying our addiction to overseas oil and literally tried to kick the habit, the better."
Looking for that "in-your-face" advertising hook, Cotton came up with a cartoon visual of an terrorist astride an airliner whose engines had been replace by oil drums.
"The headline was supremely simple," he explained. "It only had four words and those words were, 'Foreign Oil Funds Terrorism'. The bunch line was, 'Use or Support Made In USA Energy'.
"It doesn't always work," he admitted to me, "but it felt damned good to try."
Armed with his convictions and his "politically incorrect" artwork, he called on the usual suspects of trade associations and non-profits only to be politely shown the door, in large part, he believes, because their members were too closely allied oil and automotive industry interests. One organization, the American Council for Ethanol, did put him in touch with Orrie Swayze, a South Dakota Vietnam veteran and farmer who they thought would let Cotton project his poster at night on a grain silo near Interstate 90. This led to an alliance with the Veterans of Foreign Wars or VFW, who Cotton said, "didn't cringe" at his politically-sensitive graphics and message.
"They are the very same people who fought for American rights... they not called the great generation for nothing. They understood the symbolism." Cotton and Swayze were able to eventually raise more than $40,000 in 2002 to put up a dozen billboards around the South Dakota.
That success was short-lived, however, when pressure was applied, Cotton believes it was the oil companies applying pressure on ACE who applied pressure on their original funding source, and suddenly additional money dried up. Cotton and his VFW supporters then went to plan B, creating bumper stickers to help get out the message.
This and subsequent events underscored for the retired ad man that America's greatest problem right now is a lack of political dissent. And one might add, fear of being perceived as politically incorrect.
The result is ineffective opposition to big money interests who use their influence to write legislation like the current energy bill to their benefit.
"Unfortunately, if you look at the energy bill that is coming up now, which is [not only] ill-conceived but also is a dangerous piece of legislation. In that energy bill, all the environmental controls and all the clean-up efforts and all the safeguards are being gutted".
Hailing originally from Boston, Cotton describes himself politically as an independent, but also one of the last of the Kennedy liberals. He said he's spent a lifetime "kicking advertising media in the head for great fun and great profit". He characterizes his 35-year advertising career having worked on five continents, often for clients desperate to break through the costly clutter of advertising mediocrity. He claims he's never had an office or a single employee, other than himself. He originally planned to be a cartoonist, but Lil' Abner creator Al Capp urged him to go into advertising instead, because, Cotton quips, Capp didn't want him as competition.
He said the South Dakota billboard campaign is a perfect example of his approach in which he tried to brand ethanol, not as an additive product to gasoline, but as distinct brand in its own right, one that could help fight terrorism. It was a message that didn't sit well with many ethanol producers and their trade association. It did, however, generate favorable responses from the public in South Dakota and the media, if not from the organizations with a vested interest in status quo.
Cotton firmly believes that renewable energy needs to establish its own brands; in the case of ethanol or biodiesel, as an anti-terrorism fuel. The same can be applied to wind, solar and other locally-generated power sources.
I asked him where he comes up with his ideas. He replied that its the application of two basic rules: always look at any problem with a completely fresh eye and find how to relate unrelated things.
"Putting oil drums in place of [airliner] engines was relating unrelated things but relating them. And thirdly, try to do something that hasn't been done before. So, where the ideas come from, its comes from this deep reservoir or a warehouse of experiences. And since my experiences have always been one of outrage in everything I've done... without outrage, you've got nothing going for you in your head, nothing going for you on your web site... if you decide to be timid.
"Nothing is off-the-wall, nothing is too-far-fetched. And then when you finally decide what to do, the next thing to do is to marry words with pictures."
Cotton does that with a mixture of "hard-nosed language", humor and satire. He takes this approach because humor will make people more receptive who might otherwise be turned off if the message is too strident. While he comes up with the concepts and wording, he leaves the execution of the visuals to trusted freelancers he's used over the years.
Is Ending Foreign Oil Dependency Possible?
Since the days of the OPEC oil embargo and the Iran hostage crisis, America has gradually reduced its reliance on Middle Eastern oil with Canada (17%), Mexico (13%), Venezuela (11%) and Nigeria (7%) being significant sources of imported oil today. Saudi Arabia currently supplies only about 14.5% of the oil the US now imports.
While Cotton views any oil imports as feeding our dependency, he thinks Middle Eastern oil is especially dangerous because it feeds the coffers of radical Islamic terrorists. He realizes that given the fact that we now import something like 65% of the oil we consume, we won't end the dependency overnight, but we can begin to "wean" ourselves off of it through a number of strategies and technologies.
While part of the answer is growing more crops that can be turned into ethanol and biodiesel, he emphasized that we also have to make the automobile much more efficient that it currently is.
"There's two things going on. There's energy efficiency or mileage efficiency. There's the use existing US fuels. There's wind energy. There's all sorts of energy out there, but the problem is, there is no concentrated effort get it on-line" he remarked.
Energy Freedom Stamps to 'Stamp Out' Oil Dependency
Given the bureaucratic roadblocks he's encountered since beginning his quest, Cotton has continually looked for low-cost ways to spread the word. The latest initiative takes its cue from Christmas and Easter Seal stamps that people buy each year to help fund medical research.
Cotton sees these stamps as a way to cost-effectively spread the word, allowing people to show both their disapproval of the current energy situation and their patriotism. He told me that according to an article in Smithsonian magazine, the government raised $186.5 billion dollars in revenue for the war effort between 1941 and 1945 through the sale of Defense Stamps.
He envisions recruiting the help of children in the third and fourth grades to help get his message out. Towards this end he's now designing a set of stamp collection books that include lessons on why its important that their parents act more responsibly when they buy new vehicles, so that we stop buying fuel-inefficient vehicles that increase our oil dependency.
"I have high hopes for the stamps program because of two things. It is cheap. Anyone can afford fifteen bucks. And second of all, it gives them opportunities to put those stamps on a variety of places."
He had originally thought of funding university research, but decided that he'd take another page out of American history and fund a protest movement with the target being big oil and the politicians who sell out to them.
"The money is going to be used to create a series of billboards that show the price of gas in a graphic way and it's politicians you ought to blame. We need to get something to make, for the first time in recent history, politicians accountable, answerable and responsible to the American public".
Cotton agrees that a shift in public attitude is starting to take place and one of the first places that is showing up is in the sale of hybrid electric cars from Toyota, Honda and Ford.
"The fact that the public are buying them as fast as they can get them, shows that the public has interest in pitching in and trying to get off the oil dependency".
From his point of view, the fact that carmakers are now stepping up to the plate with plans to offer more hybrids, clearly indicates that they see not only a promising market, but that they must also show that they are responsive and accountable.
"I think that the accountability issue hasn't begun yet... the cry for accountability," he added. "I go back to my earlier statement is that the victim of all that is going on is dissent, with the polarized politics and the reds and blues... is that dissent is the victim. There's no dissent".
In keeping with his iconoclastic views is his firm conviction to make it as a for-profit enterprise. He refuses to go the non-profit route. "I simply don't want to be looking for hand-outs. I want to earn it the old fashioned way. The non-profits are refugees from the real world".
And it's that "real world" that Cotton sees someday slamming America up against the wall when, for whatever reasons, our supply of imported oil slackens, even a little bit.
"The ability of the Middle East to hold us hostage... as long as that's there, we're just not going to anything about it".