Less than just ten years ago, seeing a TV ad with a corporation apologizing for making a serious mistake would have been the talk of media pundits. Label ten years ago (or maybe a little longer) the last time we trusted and respected corporations before they suddenly took a nosedive in quality or paying special attention to the quality control department. The reasons for that degradation requires an intense study honing right into the myriad layers of history or perhaps a pat judgment of economic factors and evolutionary deterioration of ethics. Yet even with that assessment, we have it in our inner desires to think the corporations that make up the fabric and heart of America are still inherently good.
Obviously, those same corporations want you to have that confidence. And it’s why the new form of contrite TV advertising to save a corporation’s hide had to be invented…for the good of the country, as some adherents to the status quo would say.
Before it slips into the forgotten crevices of history, let’s go back a few years and see when the corporate apology and promise to fix all bad things ad started. Based on my research, the earliest most people can remember was Firestone creating contrite TV ads after the media blew the whistle on the company producing faulty tires. That was back in early 2002 during a time when America was still reeling from 9/11 and facing the reality of an economic downturn we didn’t know would still be going eight years down the road.
After that came more TV apologies from United Airlines and Johnson & Johnson apologizing for losing their good name to quality control mistakes. And the ads worked. No corporation could put on a more down-to-earth face than the suits at Johnson & Johnson who showed their CEO acting and dressing as if he was one of any middle-class folk watching and believing the ad on TV. More recently, Toyota created the same atmosphere with nothing but a voiceover and appealing images.
But what happened behind the scenes to make those appear that way is only in the memory of those involved in the production. If any behind-the-scenes footage became available of every corporate apology ad, all the multiple takes needed to make it appear as sincere as possible would ruin the illusion. And if Johnson & Johnson mustered true compassion for their mistakes in that what-if behind-the-scene footage, would we see the same with the suits of BP?
The truth lies somewhere in the writer’s blueprint to all contrite TV ads. We don’t even have to track down the screenwriters of these commercials on IMDb.com to analyze what works and what ultimately doesn’t.
When we take a look at that blueprint, we see there really hasn’t been much deviation since this ad genre began.
Picture a serene scene of peace, of things working right and people looking happy. This could be a nature scene as in BP or ground central to the corporation where their products are made. The people working in the assembly lines and the upfront promotional people give disgruntlement no meaning and seem to be working as a functional family unit. As soon as this scene is assimilated into the viewer’s minds, a serious-looking man in everyman’s clothes steps into frame. It turns out it’s the CEO of the company. An alternate scenario is merely hearing the CEO’s voice tuned to a warm tone.
“For 100 years, our company has provided the best product to multiple generations of families,” says the CEO with a slow-metered rhythm.
The CEO has a frozen look on his face of either deep concern or a warm face only Mister Rogers could have rivaled. If the corporation made only a minor mistake, the facial expression is one of unconditional confidence. In the event the corporation made the most profound mistake in the history of the corporation, the expression is grave with a furrowed brow and a grimace that rivals the expression of a mortal swallowing a gallon of crude oil.
“We know we’ve made mistakes, and we want to gain your confidence back. We’re currently in the process of righting all wrongs. You have our pledge that we WILL make things better and hope that you, our valued customer, will see us as we were before the disaster.”
Scene ends with the affable employees again looking into the camera with their assuredness and tools in hand. A shot of a beautiful beach is shown only if the corporation did something nefarious to the environment.
Yes, even after CEO Tony Hayward was removed as PR man and replaced by managing director Robert Dudley, BP’s TV ads of contrition used the very same formula and choice of words. The only difference was Dudley’s slightly warmer tone over Hayward’s cold and somber aura that later compounded in front of a Congressional hearing.
With one mighty obvious swoop of sticking to the script, the corporate apology TV ad may have been killed in front of viewers who, prior, had accepted them. BP has now made every future ad nothing but a thin mask where viewers see a snarky and smirking executive under the serious and concerned exterior. The only way forward to changing this formula is…well, selling the truth.
What exactly is truth in this scenario? It should be a selling of not only the truth, but the brutal truth as the only option now available. If BP keeps hiding details from the public beyond the time of this article that the Gulf oil spill will be the worst man-made disaster ever, the less BP has a chance of the public comprehending the corporation even existing. But being contrite today means revealing all the brutal truths–and ultimately getting public appreciation for the effort.
Corporations forget how forgiving people really are now that the world’s peccadilloes are impossible to control. A corporation showing how they really care or don’t care about their mistakes is the American therapy session most people want. In other words, let this scene commence in coming years on TV:
A chaotic meeting in an executive office shows employees expressing concern about being caught on hidden video sleeping in quality control due to stress. Executives tell them not to worry and eventually are seen alone discussing decisions to cut out a safety device in the factory to save money and provide a raise for the execs next year. A major disaster happens that sickens millions of people. The CEO’s raspy voice is heard:
“For 100 years, our company has been beloved by millions of Americans. But three years ago, we decided to make a decision that we realize was a mistake and sickened many of you and may possibly cause permanent harm. Despite this, we go on with our lives, vacation on our yachts, forget what happened until we have to think about it and continue to hire PR firms to make our company look better in the public eye.
You see, some of us know no other way of life. Many of us have lived this way too long to give it up, show proper emotion or become one of you.
Please forgive us. We hope to know your world someday…”