“If you consciously set out to choose an industry whose public image had all of the ingredients of the perfect villain, Big Oil would be the ideal choice,” wrote Herb Schmertz in 1986.

But who was Herb Schmertz? An eco-warrior? A climate-change campaigner? No, Schmertz was head of public affairs for Mobil (now ExxonMobil), whose mission during the 1970s and 1980s was to transform the industry’s toxic image.

To achieve this goal, Schmertz, a former military-intelligence officer and Kennedy-campaign organizer, employed a portfolio of sophisticated P.R. techniques, including the sponsorship of high-profile cultural institutions such as museums, art galleries, and high-toned television programming. He called it “affinity-of-purpose marketing,” and despite it costing hundreds of millions of dollars, its power to influence both public opinion and government policy was so great that he frequently declared that it was “downright cheap.”

In December, London’s British Museum announced a 10-year sponsorship deal with oil giant BP worth more than $60 million. Environmentalists were outraged, and the museum’s deputy chairwoman resigned in protest. This week, the director of the U.K.’s Tate galleries, Maria Balshaw, publicly criticized the museum’s decision, expressing her dismay at the “ethical dissonance” it represented.

In response to the outcry, a company spokesperson told the Times newspaper that BP, which has seen record profits in recent years, was helping to ensure the museum “remains freely accessible to all.”

Behind the scenes, however, subpoenaed internal company documents, published in April as part of a three-year U.S. congressional investigation into Big Oil’s ongoing climate deception, reveal that BP refers to its sponsorships as “strategic relationships” and justifies the expense based on the “business benefit” they deliver.

Strategic philanthropy has been used by Big Oil ever since one of the fathers of modern public relations, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, transformed the image of John D. Rockefeller “from an ogre to a benefactor” by publicizing the Standard Oil founder’s charitable donations. Under Lee’s close supervision, published photos showed Rockefeller playing golf, going to church, and giving dimes to Sunday-school children. For the first time, a large gift from the Rockefeller family to Johns Hopkins University was also made public.

John D. Rockefeller gives a nickel to a young child, 1923.

Prior to his P.R. makeover, headlines had screamed, ROCKEFELLER, MAN OR MONSTER?, and, TAINTED MONEY! Afterward, they read, JOHN D. GIVES DIMES TO SCHOOLCHILDREN, and, HOW THE ROCKEFELLERS GIVE MILLIONS. Rockefeller’s personal stock rose, along with the company share price.

These lessons were not lost on Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, who applied his uncle’s principles of psychoanalysis to the fledgling profession he would name “Public Relations Counsel.”

It wasn’t enough just to give money to charity, said Bernays, whose clients in the 1920s included General Motors, American Tobacco, General Electric, Dodge, and Vacuum Oil (now ExxonMobil). Instead, corporations needed to get into the “minds of millions” by means of “associational values and dramatic incidents.”

Bernays called this an “avenue of approach to the public mind,” through which a corporation could create goodwill and “carry the connotation of virtue to the public” via “television…the school…a motion picture.” A corporate-sponsored exhibition or cultural event would also fit his criteria perfectly.

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it?,” Bernays wrote.

Prior to his P.R. makeover, headlines had screamed, ROCKEFELLER, MAN OR MONSTER?, and, TAINTED MONEY! Afterward, they read, JOHN D. GIVES DIMES TO SCHOOLCHILDREN, and, HOW THE ROCKEFELLERS GIVE MILLIONS.

In 1940, Texaco was facing a publicity nightmare caused by rumors that its chairman, the Norwegian-born Torkild Rieber, was a Nazi sympathizer. Among other activities, Rieber supplied oil to an embargoed Nazi Germany, lent a Texaco company Buick to Hitler’s “man” in the U.S., and attended a party at the Waldorf Astoria hosted by the same German agent to celebrate the fall of France.

Worried by the obvious potential for bad publicity, Texaco sought the assistance of public-relations master Ben Sonnenberg. “Why not sponsor radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera on Saturdays?” he suggested. The Marriage of Figaro aired in December 1940 to a rapturous reception. Rieber had been forced to resign, but the company’s reputation was saved and Texaco’s relationship with the Met became the longest-running sponsorship in American broadcast history.

The message was clear. Sponsorship of a popular cultural institution could launder the reputation of a company, even one whose chairman faced allegations of Nazi sympathies while Hitler’s armies marched across Europe. It was a powerful tool that oil companies would turn to again a few decades later when the burgeoning environmental movement presented the entire industry with a major existential threat.

In the early 1970s, following Schmertz’s guidance, Mobil sponsored major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the American Museum of Natural History. The company also sponsored PBS’s Sesame Street and Masterpiece Theatre (now Masterpiece), which carried this bit of inexpensive advertising: “The following program was made possible by a grant from Mobil.”

This cultural carpet-bombing was Schmertz’s “affinity-of-purpose marketing,” which functioned, he said, by “identifying your company with a worthy cause.” In this way, important sections of the public could be “reached through an intangible value such as social responsibility.” According to Schmertz, it was “patronage with a purpose” intended not “to sell them gasoline, rather to sell them on the need for and value of our industry.”

It worked. By 1982, an internal review of Mobil’s Public Affairs Programs concluded that, according to the company’s polling, through Schmertz’s cultural-sponsorship programs, “Mobil’s image has greatly improved since the Sixties among the general public and key target groups, including journalists and government officials.”

Discovered by Amy Westervelt, the host of the podcast Drilled: The Mad Men of Climate Denial, Mobil’s review explicitly states that the sponsorship program was intended to foster what the company called “a climate of greater receptivity” for its wider P.R. agenda, which Schmertz assiduously promoted via “advertorials” (paid-for advertisements disguised as op-ed pieces) asserting the company’s position on key issues. These ran regularly on the op-ed page of The New York Times. According to the review, “Our op-ed program and our support for ‘Masterpiece Theatre,’ have enabled [Mobil] to become part of the ‘collective unconscious’ of the nation.”

In the 1990s, when concern over man-made climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels was becoming a major issue, BP sponsored the Royal Opera House, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate, and the British Museum in the U.K., and later, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the U.S. Following suit, Shell sponsored the National Gallery in London as well as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Big Oil’s sponsorship of U.S. public television reached such endemic proportions some joked that PBS should be renamed the Petroleum Broadcasting Service.

Environmentalists protest BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum, 2015.

Into the 2000s, cries that beloved bastions of culture were selling their souls by accepting fossil-fuel sponsorship grew louder. Nevertheless, plenty of institutions continued to line up for handouts. Exxon’s records alone, newly compiled by Robert Brulle, visiting research professor of environment and society at Brown University, show that between 1990 and 2018 the company’s recorded worldwide spending on arts and culture totaled approximately $200 million.

Big Oil’s sponsorship of U.S. public television reached such endemic proportions some joked that PBS should be renamed the Petroleum Broadcasting Service.

The numbers, however, tell only part of the story. Another leaked document, obtained by Guardian reporter Sharon Kelly, reveals the business “justification” for donations made by Mobil shortly before its merger with Exxon. Cultural grants were justified by their ability to enhance Mobil’s image, which in turn was measured by how prominently the relevant institutions would feature Mobil’s funding in catalogues, leaflets, printed programs, posters, and other displays. One donation, to the Boheme Opera Company, of Trenton, New Jersey, for $1,000, was judged to have “provided very favorable publicity for Mobil.” Ironically, the first production of that season was Faust.

If the industry’s P.R. messaging of the 1990s was designed to cast doubt on the science of climate change, so its messaging today aims to promote the myth that oil companies are trustworthy partners in the transition to a clean-energy future—a myth punctured by the reality of continuing oil and gas expansion, lobbying against renewables, and broken emissions-reduction promises.

In confidential BP documents released by congressional investigators, arts-and-culture funding is listed under spending intended to “defend BP” by protecting its corporate reputation, without which, the company acknowledges, its entire “license to operate” is at risk.

When Exxon bought Mobil, for $81 billion in 1998, Schmertz told The New York Times that its prime motivation had been the P.R. benefits afforded by Mobil’s sponsorship deals and its op-ed program. “They were willing to pay $80 billion to get their hands on it, and you know what? It’s a good deal for them,” said Schmertz. He was only partly joking.

Rebecca John is a freelance writer and award-winning documentary filmmaker