Crisis Control

These are challenging times, which is as much of an understatement as referring to Hurricane Ike as a pesky wind. Bear Stearns’ collapse was a harbinger of things to come, but who, except Warren Buffett, could have predicted the last few weeks, including another two implosions (Lehman Bros. and Merrill Lynch) and the SOS from AIG? It all led up to the largest federal bailout in history and pivoted around one company that sounds like a wannabe gangster (Freddie Mac) and another like a cranky geriatric (Fannie Mae).

I’m not exactly a financial expert — although hiding all those dollar bills under my bed suddenly seems genius — so I won’t posit anymore on the flimsy house of cards our very lives seem to be dependent on. Instead, I’ll offer up some commentary on everybody’s favorite swear word: advertising.

When I read that AIG pulled its corporate ads, my first reaction was a double-barreled “So what?” and “Of course!” It’s a no-brainer that during such tumultuous times the last thing a brand should do is wax lyrical about ephemeral warm and fuzzies.

Beyond the obvious reasons AIG pulled its ads, what stands out is the chasm (and I do mean chasm) between what this company was saying and what it was doing. Advertising exposed and exacerbated a massive disconnect between fantasy and reality. Think about the alternative of pulling them. Can you imagine the reaction of the public if Stockard Channing had continued narrating over AIG’s drivel in the days following the news that it was in desperate trouble?

I get no joy from wagging a finger at AIG. Nor do I have any desire to single out a company that represents just one piece of the iceberg. But I do think it’s important to highlight a glaring truism in today’s unforgiving world: Transparency and trust are not brand attributes; they’re corporate and cultural necessities. Remember the kerfuffle associated with Nike taking issue with a consumer who ordered customized sneakers bearing the words, “Sweat” and “Shop”? Or how about Unilever’s Dove with its “Onslaught” video and Greenpeace’s response, “Onslaught(er)”?

And so, in the spirit of constructive criticism, it’s time to play everybody’s favorite spectator sport, “What should they have done?”

According to Jack Trout in a recent Brandweek article, “When there is something in the news, taking over the news, you need to find a way to explain it in your marketing.” He was alluding to Bank of America explaining its purchase of Merrill Lynch, as opposed to it sticking with its existing “Bank of opportunity” campaign. That’s one alternative. However, I just don’t believe that in these cases advertising is a credible way to do anything other than spin the truth or attempt to rationalize why the “flip” just “flopped.”

In AIG’s case, spending is not an option. But there are alternatives, from a CEO address on YouTube (streaming live from Aruba) to morning news and talk show appearances. But the latter may be possible only in theory; in practice it would need to escape the tentacles of corporate communications and legal affairs.

This is the time to step up to the plate, shed all corporate protective layers and have the C-suite prostrating themselves in front of their community sans teleprompter — warts and all — to tell it like it is. (A man can dream.) Better yet, create some kind of town hall forum using a live conferencing or streaming solution and/or a blogging platform to allow the community to answer back and join the conversation itself. (Fat chance.)

Perhaps the best option is to pull all marketing communications, not just advertising. In AIG’s case, this would include its sponsorship of global football titan Manchester United (think the Yankees, but with a postseason). It would also mean explicitly reallocating this entire “budget” to all affected customers — and probably employees (at the bottom, not the top), if there’s any change to spare.