Three of America's biggest companies – Facebook, Wells Fargo and Uber – have been offering up vague apologies via television commercials in recent weeks. If you watch the Cavs-Dubs game tonight, you'll probably catch one or all of them.
Have a bucket handy.
All three entities are apologizing for recent scandals, all three are pledging to change their ways and all three are basically rolling out the same script:
Hi, America. We were awesome for a long time. Here are some culturally representative shots of people like you smiling and enjoying our services. After repeated denials, we recently had to admit to violating your trust, but the unelucidated bad thing doesn't have to come between us. We promise: we fixed that shit. You will now wake up feeling refreshed in 3,2,1…
There are times when corporate apologies are appropriate and can be taken at face value. After the Tylenol murders in the '80s, for instance, Johnson & Johnson created a new standard in introducing safety caps and the brand (rightfully) survived. That scandal wasn't the company's fault, but it did the right thing anyway.
The three companies apologizing now are a little guiltier.
The Wells Fargo ad, "Earning Back Your Trust," is the most brazen of the bunch.
It starts off with a succession of images that look like outtakes from Unforgiven, with scenes of Wells Fargo wagons safeguarding bars of prospected gold back across the plains. A deep-voiced narrator welcomes you to the idyll:
We know the value of trust. We were built on it. Back when the country went west for gold, we were the ones who carried it back east…
A rugged cowboy nods in agreement. Then: a montage of horses and locomotives and steamships, before we zoom into the prosperous future with stills from the happy '70s and '80s:
Over the years, we built on that trust. We always found the way…
…Until we lost it.
Zoinks! The viewer briefly sees a stark headline that reads, WHAT'S HAPPENING AT WELLS FARGO?
Yes, what is happening at Wells Fargo? To what is this beer-commercial-sounding narrator referring?
Is it the $175 million it paid in a settlement following accusations that the bank systematically overcharged black and Hispanic homeowners in mortgage services? Or is it the $1 billion (billion with a B) settlement from just over a month ago, over improper auto and home loan fees?
No, wait – maybe he's referring to a hangover from the multi-billion-dollar national foreclosure settlement? Or maybe it's the time Wells was sued by the federal government for improperly certifying over 100,000 mortgages for federal loan insurance? What's happening?
It's so confusing!
Of course, Wells is actually referring to the one scandal the public has actually heard about on the news: That sordid business about creating fake accounts and credit cards in customers' names. The shareholder settlement in that case was $480 million, announced in May. The narrator explains that's all in the past:
Fixing what went wrong. Making things right. And ending product sales goals for branch bankers. So we can focus on your satisfaction…
It's a new day at Wells Fargo [Asian child gives low-five to African-American female bank employee]. But it's a lot like our first day [Wells Fargo coach barreling across the plains, horses, etc]…
Wells Fargo. Established 1852. Re-established 2018. Fuck you.
Actually, they didn't say that last part. But why is Wells Fargo bothering at all to do a public service announcement, when most Too-Big-To-Fail banks of Wells' size in the post-financial-crisis era have similarly long records of abuses?
The answer is left out of the ad. Wells has had so many cases, and the phony account business was so comically villainous (and, sadly for Wells, digestible to the ordinary consumer), that even the myopic Fed was recently forced to put Wells in "the penalty box."
In February, outgoing Fed chair Janet Yellen slapped caps on Wells, forbidding the bank to grow beyond its $2 trillion size until authorities are satisfied it has corrected its "pervasive and persistent misconduct."
In English, this means Wells has until September 30th to prove in a third-party review that its employees have stopped stuffing social security numbers down their underpants and can then be left unsupervised around things like your money.
If it fails, the bank is planning for disaster – remaining at its current size through…2019! The bank says that it expects profits to be affected by "less than $100 million" in 2018.
Wells wants to reassure customers, of course, but it also wants to send a message to regulators at the Fed, and to the staff of meddling legislators like Elizabeth Warren. The real text of the ad could have been:
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We know the value of trust. After all, we've been ass-deep in scandals for most of the last 10 years. But when we finally ripped you off in a way that reporters understood, we got busted. Now, we need the Fed off our back, because our profits are slightly down compared to JP Morgan Chase and might be again for another WHOLE YEAR. Here's a picture of a cowboy. We opened 30 accounts in his name. Just kidding.
As for Uber's ad, "Moving Forward," the most striking thing about the spot is how prominently it features new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.
Uber's previous CEO, Travis Kalanick, had to resign last June amid numerous scandals, from workplace sexual issues to improper "fingerprinting" of iPhone data. Apple threatened to ban the Uber app over that one.
The new video shows Khosrowshahi speaking directly to the camera, followed by lots of scenes of him wearing a caring expression as he listens to folks. He promises a "new culture" for "both riders and drivers."
(Translation: Unlike my asshole predecessor, I won't get caught on camera saying 'Bullshit!' and lecturing an Uber driver about responsibility when he complains that he went bankrupt and lost $97,000 because of changing policies.)
Khosrowshahi is taking a risk. A CEO who puts his face on a public apology is all but obligated to open his carotid the next time the company slips – and they always slip.
Frankly, if you see a CEO in a televised apology, you can usually start digging his grave. Ask Jet Blue’s ex-CEO David Neeleman. Or BP’s former chief Tony Hayward, who – over the plaintive chirping of the few still-living sea birds left after the Deepwater Horizon disaster – croaked out a feeble apology, and was replaced shortly after.
When the smart CEO appears after a scandal, it's usually to deny responsibility, not accept it. The textbook case came eight years ago, when Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein traveled to Washington to testify in the wake of the "Big Short" scandal.
Blankfein and his firm stood accused of betting billions against their own clients, as detailed in a devastating 650-page Senate report. The CEO faced intense questioning by the chair of the committee that produced that report, Michigan Senator Carl Levin, who threw haymaker after haymaker.
"You are taking a position against the very security that you are selling and you are not troubled?" Levin thundered. "And you want people to trust you?"
Blankfein winced, squinted, shrugged and looked almost like he didn't understand the question. He completely blew off Levin and dared him to do something about it. America mostly found it gross, but the Goldman board dug it – Blankfein is still in charge.
Blankfein's performance has since been held up as a textbook example of how to successfully non-apologize in a crisis. We'll see if Khosrowshahi still has a job in eight years.
Smart firms almost always keep their CEOs off-screen and fill their public apologies with lots and lots of smiling human clip-art. You can't fire a cowboy. Or, in Facebook's case, a heart emoji.
Facebook's new ad basically says: We created Facebook to help people get together, and when we did…
We felt a little less alone [heart emoji!]…
But then the bad thing happened. What exactly?
You had to deal with spam, clickbait, fake news and data misuse [angry face emoji]…
Facebook says, "That's going to change. From now on, Facebook will do more to keep you safe and protect your privacy."
The problem with the Facebook ad is that it's not in trouble for a mistake. It's the company's core business model that's offensive.
And it's concerning that there are still stories of such misuse trickling out, like Tuesday's revelation in the Times that FB had a troubling data-sharing arrangement with Chinese companies, including one with a "close relationship to China's government."
But Facebook's normal business involves harvesting your data and allowing any advertiser to make use of it, even if they have to do it through Facebook.
Moreover, the bigger issue is that these massive private spying operations exist at all. Most of them long ago agreed to partner with actual spy agencies like the NSA. Wake me up when Facebook and the NSA run a joint ad apologizing for that during the NBA finals.