Forgiveness Marketing

Cigarette companies cannot advertise their wares on television. They can, however, advertise their honesty and good intentions, or whatever it is that’s being touted in an interesting ad that Philip Morris has been running lately. There are actually two slightly different variations on the spot, and both essentially summarize, for the benefit of you, the public, the settlement agreement between the big tobacco companies and the states in 1998.

Since those ads began running, there’s been a small rash of forgiveness marketing. The other night I saw an ad featuring Jacques Nasser, the Ford honcho, apologizing about the company’s ongoing tire fiasco. Today’s Wall Street Journal mentions another Nasser ad, and yesterday I read that United Airlines has also been running ads featuring its chairman saying how sorry he is about all the delays and cancellations associated with the airline’s dispute with its pilots’ union. (I haven’t seen this ad or the more recent Nasser ad; I’m also told Firestone has run apologetic commercials.)

What’s the point of all this? Does it work? There are some differences among the campaigns here, so let’s concentrate on Philip Morris for a moment. These ads have a simple look, mostly black type on a white background–kind of like the warning label on a pack of smokes. A woman’s voice, reminiscent of the narrator of a filmstrip you might have watched in grade school, leads you through, and the only action is words fading on- and off-screen, echoing key phrases of her monologue. “No matter what you think of America’s tobacco companies,” she begins in one of the spots, “the fact is, at Philip Morris, we’re changing the way we do business.” She goes on to describe the 1998 tobacco settlement agreement, noting that the big tobacco firms agreed to pay $200 billion to the states. She proceeds to list all the onerous conditions the agreement lays on the tobacco firms: no billboards, no logos on clothing, no paid product placement in movies, no cartoon characters, etc. Plus, she observes, the settlement, “provides $1.5 billion to fund youth anti-smoking ads and education.”

The screen type not only repeats her speech, but includes page citations from the settlement agreement itself, so we can double-check her veracity, I guess. “We know some may question our commitment,” the narrator says, “so the agreement gives your state attorney general independent enforcement authority to ensure compliance.” (Yeah, I’m sure the tobacco companies were adamant about that.) “But don’t take our word for it,” the woman concludes in a tone whose relationship to sarcasm is the same as the Mona Lisa’s expression is to a smile. “For more information, call for a copy of the Tobacco Settlement Agreement.” “Because things are changing. And at Philip Morris, we wanted you to know.”

This morning I got an e-mail from a reader who expressed his general displeasure at what he called Mea Culpa Advertising. “It sends the message that a company can do whatever it wants until it gets pinched, at which time it can just hire a PR firm.” If these companies “care so much about our happiness,” he added, “the need for the commercials would never have arisen.” (He threw in another ad for Miller Beer that I’ve seen a million times, in which the residents of a small town praise Miller for bottling water for them during an emergency; the ad notes that Miller is “a Philip Morris company.”)

Ford and UAL are responding to specific problems that are high in the minds of their customers right now, so the relative effectiveness of these ads is a small sideshow to much larger crises. I’m sure that a lot of people who see those ads will react to them with the same skepticism as the reader who e-mailed me. On the other hand, what else are they going to do?

Philip Morris’ endgame is harder to suss out. On one level there’s an implicit request for forgiveness. But in a sentence, I’d say the real message of the campaign would be: Leave us alone! We’ve paid our pound of flesh, Philip Morris seems to plead, and we are now here to admit our sins and play by the rules that have been imposed upon us. All of which is fine. But the message also seems to be trying to pass itself off as a public service announcement, which is preposterous: The cigarette companies wouldn’t be saying or doing any of these things if they hadn’t been on the wrong end of expensive litigation that lasted for years. You can’t grovel and posture at the same time. Or at least you can’t do so without some pretty awkward contortions. But hey, don’t take my word for it …