WHY CUSTOMERS ARE NO LONGER EMPATHETIC TOWARDS MEA CULPA ADS

Christina Beavis
Aug 16, 2018 · 3 min read

A time-honored tradition of corporate America, the apology ad has experienced something of a renaissance in the past year. Uber, Facebook, and Wells Fargo all aired mea culpa advertisements during the NBA Finals; their wrongdoings ranged from sexual harassment claims (oopsie-daisies!) to flagrant data abuse (please forgive us!) to large-scale commercial fraud (pretty please forgive us and maybe forget this ever happened?).

To take another Latin phrase, te futueo et caballum tuum — that is, screw you, and the horse you rode in on. We have no doubt that these companies are sorry…that is, sorry their shoddy ethics got exposed. Blind to everything but the bottom line, these companies are now suffering the consequences, in the form of plunging stakeholder value, less new business, and even congressional testimonials rich with schadenfreude.

Unfortunately, our tiny violins are getting tuned, so we won’t be able to play a sad dirge for these mega-corporations with their mega-profits. The public isn’t so quick to forgive these days either (even when the company takes out a full-page ad in the New York Times that does pretty much the bare minimum in taking ownership).

This standard of corporate apology just doesn’t cut it anymore. Here’s why:

Consumers, especially those in millennial and Gen Z demographic, can read between the lines. The generations that grew up on the Internet are media-savvy enough to X-ray right through a “non-apology” apology put together by your legal team. Don’t test their highly-attuned ability to whiff out BS — they know exactly what it means when your statement uses vague, circular language like “That wasn’t our intention” or “Mistakes were made.”

Integrity is one of the most treasured qualities a brand can process. Despite headlines that may run to the contrary, people are invested in making the world a better place and supporting companies that do the same. “Authenticity” has become such a buzzword that people forget what lies at its heart — a commitment to aligning with universal values, principles, and good. Consumers are receptive to apologies if the mistake was an honest one, but not for bad behavior driven by naked self-interest. Basically? In most cases, the mea culpa is too little, too late.

Consumers know they can take their business elsewhere. With the abundance of choices made available by technology, consumers can easily put their money where their mouth is. There’s no need for them to resentfully hand over their hard-earned cash to you when a plethora of other options exist.

CATFISH CALLOUT OF THE WEEK:

It was a tough callout this week! It turns out a lot of businesses are really, really bad at offering a genuine apology. Ultimately, we had to go with Wells Fargo, which aired this ad messaged around earning back your trust against nostalgic images of its Western roots:

We’re not quite sure where to start. This is laughably tone-deaf, considering that Wells Fargo’s transgression involves opening up 2 million sham bank accounts and credit cards. The reminder of the “good ol’ days” (…nearly two hundred years ago) leaves us ice-cold considering the magnitude of betrayal.

Luckily, consumers weren’t fooled — in addition to the $1B fine enacted by government regulators and the millions it paid in legal expenses and customer restitution, the bank saw sharp drop-offs in new accounts and spikes in account closings. A karmic lesson learned: what goes around comes around.

Christina Beavis

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