When Texaco said it wanted an agency for a new corporate image campaign, people scoffed. The company already had visibility, albeit the wrong kind.
Last November, a surreptitiously recorded conversation found its way into court as evidence in a long-standing discrimination suit brought by Texaco's black employees. With managers caught discussing destruction of evidence and chuckling over "black jelly beans" stuck to "the bottom of the bag," Texaco became the poster boy of bad corporate behavior.
Now it's trying to buy back its good name with paid ads. Impossible, the doubters say. The cynical viewing public will see through Texaco's attempt to purchase a good name. But the public is also amnesiac. And in this campaign, no money has been spared to lull it into a forgetful trance.
Yet if paid ads can erase a public relations disaster, these ads may do it. The spots are
a showcase of big-buck gorgeousness, teeming with global images and saturated in deep postcard hues of azure, emerald, ochre and gold. A wildly overproduced jingle, or rather anthem, was commissioned to create the proper uplifting mood. And Lord only knows what it cost to get Paul Newman, with his impeccable liberal credentials, to lend his instantly recognizable voice to copy like "Run, world, run."
The theory behind the campaign seems to be that if money can buy absolution, lots of money buys lots of absolution.
As if to emphasize the new campaign's grandiosity, the client included a little bonus on the press reel: vintage spots from the venerable Texaco ad oeuvre. The difference is not just the old ads' Paleolithic look. Once upon a time, Texaco was content to take care of your car. Now it claims to be a helpmate to the entire planet.
Painfully clear, too, is how much the art of jingle writing has declined. The famous '50s Men of Texaco (all white in those days and no one fussed) used to croon, "Sky Chief/Fill up with Sky Chief/And you will smile/At the pile/Of new miles that you will add." Compared to that nifty Tin Pan Alley patter, the lame, latter-day "Can you see the star?" just doesn't cut it.
Instead of the Texaco stuff, it would have been better to include corporate ads for GE on the reel. BBDO's longtime stewardship of the "We bring good things to life" campaign, the grand champion of corporation-is-your-friend advertising, is the reason the agency ultimately won the business.
BBDO does not disappoint. The anthem employs the same ascending notes ("A world
of en-er-gee/Texac-o-o-o") in what sounds like a reunion concert of the old GE chorale. The visuals are the same mix-and-match montage of big machines and little people. Of course, the strategy is the same: a giant corporation dedicated to making a better world for all of us.
Still, it took GE years to go from taking credit for toasters to taking credit for the free world. (As the newly liberated Iron Curtain maiden declares in the famous Hungarian opera house spot, "Fr-r-reedom iz vunderful.")
The Texaco campaign begins by saving the world. But will lightening strike twice? For all its visual sumptuousness, this eye candy lacks the heart of the classic GE spots. Or perhaps, like all skeptics, I'm inured to the corporate warm-and-fuzzies. Either way, feel-good advertising, like the art of the jingle, isn't what it used to be.
As for the sticky "black jelly bean" issue that inspired this mega-budget investment in image rehabilitation, African Americans do indeed show up in a noticeable, yet tastefully unobtrusive way. They beam, as if to say that freedom really is vunderful.
Oddly enough, however, their presence barely registers in the campaign. After all, in ads, diversity triumphed long ago. If only the same could be said of corporate personnel departments.