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Say you’re sorry when you do something wrong. But only if you get caught.
When one advertiser does something completely new and different, like when Budweiser put a dog named ”Spuds MacKenzie” in TV ads in 1987, you may not notice. But when every third ad has a dog in it, as what happened in the first decade of this century, you see a pattern.
So without further ado, let’s have a light drumroll for the latest trend in television advertising that may have broader social implications…
Big corporations using TV commercials to apologize for past bad behavior. Currently in frequent rotation on multiple channels and cable systems are “mea culpa” ads from Facebook, Uber and Wells Fargo.
What’s most fascinating about these potlatches of apologies is that there are many similarities between the ads these three titans of the 21st century American economy have created to seek the forgiveness of their customers and the general public. The first and most obvious similarity is that all three companies used advanced digital technology to do some very nefarious stuff. Facebook allowed fake ads from foreign governments to interfere in our election and let its vendors raid the personal information of Facebook users. Wells Fargo opened fake accounts, changed customer documents without permission and guided clients with retirement accounts into the wrong investments to get higher fees, all by manipulating customer databases. Uber’s laundry list of bad behavior would take dozens of pages to list but includes violating laws in 20 states, data breeches, illegal disruption of competitors’ operations and at least one old-fashioned crime that doesn’t always require a computer—sexual harassment.
But using computer technology to break the law or, in the case of Facebook, betray a lot of people, isn’t the only thing that these companies and their “We’re sorry” commercials have in common!
All three have produced and are broadcasting ads which completely sanitize the pain their corporate misbehavior caused. All three companies issue very clear apologies but we never learn for what. Even Facebook’s cute-as-a-Smurf rendition of what happened talks about the bad guys who got onto Facebook and not about how Facebook facilitated and made tons of money off their manipulations of data and people. Wells Fargo never tells us explicitly what its managers did without the permission of customers. Uber doesn’t even reference the badness of the past in its intense focus on how wonderful things are now.
While ignoring the past, the companies all brightly tell us how they are fixing the problem and making things better. Wells Fargo talks about changing manager incentives. Uber touts its new leader and a new corporate-wide attitude that puts good treatment of drivers and riders first. All Facebook says is that the bad guys can’t get in any more so we’re free to build our beautiful global networks of friends again. We never learn why these large companies made the changes they did, and all three companies suggest in subtle, sub-textual ways that it wasn’t their fault. The changes and the reason for them are never placed in a context, but float weightlessly is some weird corporate ether.
The styles of the spots are so similar that you might guess it’s the same ad agency that created all of them, but you’d be wrong; the fact that three different agencies came up with similarly squeamish approaches suggests an industry-wide trend. All have bright, happy music. The visuals in all depend almost exclusively on extreme close-ups, in Facebook’s case of computer screens, many of hand-held computers that also make phone calls and take photos. Oh, yeah, smart phones. The visuals in all cases communicate the same message: The company improves your quality of life. In the case of Wells Fargo and Uber, the effect creates a hyped-up, go-go feeling; the Facebook ad feels dreamier, like a bedtime story. But all three ads reside in a corporate fantasy land in which mistakes are no longer made. (And note how I used the corporate passive “mistakes are no longer made” which never tells us who made them instead of the more upright and direct “they no longer make mistakes.”)
Wells Fargo, the oldest and most traditional of these companies, has also laid out a ton of moolah on a print advertising campaign that creates a two-page spread of what is supposed to look like real news. I saw the spread in the middle of the first section of the Sunday New York Times. The seven stories detail the support the bank gives charities and how its loans help improve lives and society. Wells Fargo hits all the hot buttons: climate change, affordable housing, help to veterans, Native Americans.
The apologies seem strange and somewhat refreshing in the take-no-prisoners, never-back-down zeitgeist created by the Trump Administration. In the Age of Trump, the level of public discourse has sunk so low, so many media outlets endorse so many lies by Trump and others, and the tensions between conflicting sides has been stoked so intensely that we may have collectively forgotten how powerful a sincere, or sincere-sounding, apology is in winning over the hearts and minds of those angry at you. For Trump and Trumpites like Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the Washington State University head football coach Mike Leach, who tweeted out lies about President Obama last week, there’s never a need to apologize, no matter how outrageous the lie or how horrendous the action. Of course, if the current administration and its supporters publicly atoned every time they lied or did something that harmed our country, we would need not one but two or three 24/7 government news services that did nothing but pump out apologies!
Could the sanitized corporate “Mea culpa” ad blitz spread to other companies that have stepped in it, a kind of backside-first reassertion of basic civility by a corporate America fed up with current political rhetoric? We didn’t see the same type of formal apology issued on television when we were having all those data beaches a few years back, nor when all those airlines got caught keeping people in motionless airplanes on runways for hours about five years ago. Yes, the offending corporations apologized and promised they had made things right. But they just didn’t buy expensive national ad campaigns to repeatedly say they’re sorry in front of large national audiences—again and again and again for weeks!
Perhaps corporate America feels so bad about the current direction of public discourse under Trump that corporations want to appear to go out of their way to do the right thing.
That is, after they have been caught doing the wrong thing for years!
Copyright 2018 Marc Jampole