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The National Corn Growers Association recently began running TV ads in Washington featuring an easily recognizable villain: BP PLC and its huge, uncontained oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Ethanol: Now is the time," the ad announces.
"Ethanol is clean-burning, environmentally friendly and can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions compared to petroleum," said the association's president, Darrin Ihnen, in an interview. "The spill is a good reminder of that."
BP says it is one of the largest buyers and suppliers of corn-based ethanol in the U.S., but corn growers aren't the only ones hoping to use BP's woes for their own benefit. When lobbyists, politicians or public-relations specialists are looking for a symbol of evil these days, BP is a top choice, even if the subject matter has little or nothing to do with oil. BP declined to comment on how others are invoking its name.
Rarely has a corporation been the subject of such frustration and anger as BP has faced from the American public since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, killing 11 people and triggering one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.
Seemingly insensitive statements by several BP executives, including one by the chairman calling the Gulf fisherman and others affected by the spill "small people," have only fueled the fire.
Boycotts of BP-branded gas stations have sprung up, and some advocacy groups have called for the oil giant to be banned from military contracts.
Crisis-management experts say that taking advantage of corporate turmoil can be effective. The fact that this particular incident involves an oil company, the bane of many environmental and other activists, only magnifies the effect.
"There is not, never has been and never will be any downside in attacking an oil company," said Eric Dezenhall, chief executive of Dezenhall Resources, a Washington, D.C., crisis-management firm.
And the more BP's name is invoked by the public at large, the more the company's image is damaged, experts said. Exxon Mobil Corp. suffered for years from the taint of its giant 1989 oil spill in Alaska, remaining synonymous in the minds of many consumers with an environmental disaster.
"It will be years before they live down—if they live down—this event," said Gerald C. Meyers, a University of Michigan business professor and crisis-management expert.
The spill in the Gulf has had such negative reverberations that some companies that have nothing to do with oil are fearful of the possibility of being equated with BP.
In recent litigation on genetically modified rice, Germany-based Bayer CropScience asked a federal judge in Missouri to ban attorneys for the plaintiffs from comparing it to BP. They feared plaintiffs' attorneys would say that Bayer was tainting U.S. rice crops in same the way BP has damaged the Gulf coastline.
The judge decided to take up the issue as it arose during the trial. A Bayer spokesman said such motions were commonplace and "intended as a means of focusing the jury's attention on the issues actually in dispute."
President Barack Obama is getting in on the act. In a speech from the Oval Office last month, Mr. Obama cited the BP oil disaster as a reason to press for legislation that would cap emissions of greenhouse gases.
Opponents of such legislation responded by also invoking BP, pointing out that the company is one of the founding members of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a group of businesses and environmental groups that have endorsed the principle of capping emissions.
"BP...has been only too happy to support the policy contained [in the climate legislation] with the understanding that they would be able to profit from the costly new regulations that will force consumers to pay more for energy," said Dick Armey, a former Republican House majority leader, in a written statement. Mr. Armey now runs FreedomWorks, a group that has helped organize some of the Tea Party protests against many of Mr. Obama's policies in recent months.
BP eventually pulled out of the climate partnership.
While BP's name is being used to further, or detract from, various political and economic interests, it is also becoming an insult in the culture at large.
Angry bloggers refer to AT&T Inc. as the "BP of phone carriers" for problems with its network. On Twitter, users grouse that Toyota Motor Corp. is the "BP of the car industry" after it announced world-wide recalls amid complaints that its vehicles were accelerating out of control. AT&T and Toyota declined to comment.
In the Broadway musical "Fela!" the final number of Act I was recently changed. The cast parades across the stage holding signs of international companies that the characters call corrupt. The show has now replaced a sign showing Siemens AG, the German industrial conglomerate, with one showing BP.
Philadelphia Daily News film critic Gary Thompson, in his review of the movie "Grown Ups," called the match-up of director Dennis Dugan and actor Adam Sandler "the BP of low-brow gags," saying their films are "an unpluggable gusher of juvenile comedy."
And the oil spill has also provided much fodder for late-night TV comedians. One, Jimmy Fallon, joked that the Coast Guard had offered good news, saying it was catching as many as 630,000 gallons of oil a day. "The bad news is that they're capturing it with ducks," he added.
—Ellen Gamerman and Jason Zweig contributed to this article.