All Apologies: 5 Memorable Mea Culpas as Wells Fargo, Facebook and Uber Say Sorry

Hat-in-hand ads have a long history

In 1982, Tylenol launched a publicity effort that’s still taught in marketing and management schools.
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If the recent crop of corporate apologies from Wells Fargo, Facebook and Uber feels like a refreshing breeze of frankness has just blown in, well, it might be time to shut the window. While the recent snafus from these multibillion-dollar brands were serious enough to get the brass to say yes to pumping out apology campaigns—and put media dollars behind those campaigns—the fact remains that pushing CEOs into the corporate confessional is nothing new. Indeed, the practice dates back further than social media or even the lives of most millennials.

Here’s a roundup of some of the more important (and notorious) brand atonements:

Samsung is sorry for that fire in your pocket (2016)

When customers flocked to buy Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 in August 2016, none of them knew the phone’s array of exciting new features included the tendency to spontaneously combust. But after 35 reports of the batteries overheating and catching fire, Samsung hit the brakes in September, recalling the million or so phones it had already sold. Not long after, it halted production entirely. (The U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision to ban the phones on all flights inside the U.S. was, no doubt, also a motivating factor.) But a promised refund wasn’t going to address the damage done to the brand itself, which is what led to the full-page apology ads that appeared in America’s three biggest newspapers on Nov. 7, 2016. There were no graphics, no photos—just pure eating of crow: “An important tenet of our mission is to offer best-in-class safety and quality,” the ad read in part. “Recently, we fell short of this promise. For this we are truly sorry.” Incredibly enough, consumers appeared to listen. In April 2017, preorders for the Galaxy S8 were unexpectedly strong.

JCPenney to customers: Please—we beg you—come back (2013)

In 2012, JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson decided to make a few changes in hopes of getting shoppers to visit his stores. Instead, he got a third of them to stay home. Hoping to lure younger customers with a fresh new layout and “fair and square” prices, Johnson built stores within his stores while simultaneously nixing JCPenney’s longstanding promotions program. In the end, though, the youngsters weren’t impressed, and the older shoppers were pissed. Sales for the holiday were down 32 percent. So the board gave Johnson his walking papers, then turned to damage control, which included a 30-second ad that frankly admitted to the goofs. “It’s no secret,” the voiceover said. “Recently, JCPenney changed. Some of the changes you like, and some you didn’t.” Well, that was putting things mildly. But customers responded. By the fourth quarter of 2013, same-store sales had grown by 2 percent.

BP is deeply sorry for that Deepwater Horizon thing (2010)

On April 20, 2010, the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 crew members and shearing off the drill pipe, which began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 60,000 barrels a day. It was a spill that President Obama would later call “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” BP CEO Tony Hayward was already a household name in the U.S., though it was mostly because of royal snafu he committed on May 30, when the executive—pilloried in the court of public opinion—bemoaned to a news crew that he’d “like his life back.” Hayward was also on the record as having called the spill “relatively tiny.” Which is why more than a few people were scratching their heads 45 days into the spill, when a series of apology ads began airing—starring Tony Hayward. In a detached monotone, the CEO recounted his company’s cleanup efforts to date, saying, “To those affected and your families, I’m deeply sorry.” Unfortunately for Hayward and his company, Americans were not in a forgiving mood. In an Ace Metrix poll taken a few days later, 75 percent of respondents believed Hayward should be fired. By Oct. 1, 2010, he was.

Coca-Cola fesses up to screwing with your favorite soft drink (1985)

For those who were around to remember it, April 23, 1985 was a dark day for thirsty people. It was the day that witnessed the biggest product flop since 1958, when Ford introduced the Edsel. It was the day that Coca-Cola announced it had changed its century-old secret formula to produce a sweeter soft drink. It was New Coke, and Americans hated it. Almost immediately, shoppers rushed to stores to stock up on the old stuff. A consumer poll revealed that an anemic 13 percent of Americans liked the new formula. Meanwhile, No. 2 brand Pepsi seized the opportunity and went on the attack, airing ads like the one showing three old codgers sitting in lawn chairs scoffing, “They changed my Coke!” Seventy-seven days later, headquarters raised the white flag. Company brass traveled up from Atlanta to the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, where president Donald R. Keough admitted to the error of the company’s ways and announced that the original formula would be returning. In a five-minute address, Keough went so far as to read some letters he’d received from angry customers, including: “Dear Sir: You have fouled up by changing the only perfect thing in the world.” His frank, grandfatherly delivery would also be tapped for a national TV campaign. “Some critics will say Coca-Cola made a marketing mistake,” Keough intoned. “Some cynics will say that we planned the whole thing. The truth is, we are not that dumb, and we are not that smart.”

Tylenol sets the gold standard for taking responsibility (1982)

In the fall of 1982, seven consumers in the Chicago area took Extra Strength Tylenol and paid for it with their lives. Police were baffled at first. The bottles had all come from different plants and had been purchased at different stores. But as subsequent testing revealed, they had one thing in common: All had been laced with fatal doses of potassium cyanide. These were the days before tamper-resistant packaging, making it a relatively easy thing for an enterprising psychopath to lace the capsules of his choice and then close them back up. The poisonings were, in other words, not the company’s fault. But Tylenol would take responsibility nevertheless, launching a publicity effort that is taught in marketing and management schools to this day. At Johnson & Johnson’s headquarters in New Brunswick, N.J., medical director Thomas N. Gates sat down before the cameras to shoot a 60-second spot that later aired on all the major TV networks. The tampering, he told viewers, “damages all of us—you the American public, because you have made Tylenol a trusted part of your healthcare, and we who make Tylenol because we’ve worked hard to earn that trust. We will work even harder to keep it.” And J&J did, by advising consumers to discard the capsules they had and by introducing tamper-resistant packaging that would later become the norm for the entire over-the-counter pharmaceutical segment. Six months in, Tylenol had recovered nearly all of the market share it had lost since the scare began.

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