Remember when the fall of Enron was going to go down as a historical inflection point that forever shattered our image of corporate America? Well, at least you remember Enron—some bad guys in suits, “complex financial maneuvers,” paper shredding, that sort of thing. Maybe you’re even hanging on to your outrage. Meanwhile, however, there is evidence from the world of advertising that the zeitgeist has reduced business chicanery from Defining Issue of Our Time to mere punchline.
In a recent spot from Heineken—see it by clicking the image in this paragraph—we peer through a high-rise window at an office holiday party, to the crooning of Dean Martin. “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” sings Dino in his vaguely decadent but always seductive style, and indeed the white stuff seems to be coming down plenty thick outside. Slowly the camera tilts upward, toward the top floor. Oddly, that’s where the “snow” seems to be coming from. Within, we find power-suited execs, madly snatching up papers from a fancy conference table and stuffing them into a shredder. Box after box of documentation is getting the treatment, resulting in wastebaskets full of confetti, which are promptly emptied out the window. It cascades out in little flakes, fluttering past the happy (and innocent?) workers below. While Martin warbles blithely on, titles emerge against a background of corporate-made flurries: “To all of us who weren’t naughty this year … Happy Holidays.” The Heineken logo appears briefly at the end.
Now wait a minute. Isn’t it risky to make light of corporate malfeasance? What about all those solid Americans who showed up back when there were eight or nine congressional committees meeting daily on this subject to complain that CEOs are overpaid and selfish villains?
The answer is no, it’s not risky. We’ve moved on. Last week the New York Times reported that former CSX honcho and Treasury secretary nominee John W. Snow will draw a pension based on 44 years of service, although he actually put in 25, and that his benefits will be based not just on his salary, but on his salary, bonus, and the value of the huge chunk of CSX stock he was awarded, meaning his former firm will pay him about $2.5 million a year for the rest of his life. As that piece noted in passing, this comes on top of a 69 percent pay hike between 1997 and 2002—he was pulling down more than $10 million annually as of last year—in a period when CSX shares fell 53 percent, lagging the S&P 500. Enrichment for mediocrity isn’t criminal fraud, but it’s certainly outrageous. So was there anger and wailing in the streets? No. It was a one-day story.
So the Heineken ad is in perfect sync with general attitudes about corporate excess: Nowadays it’s good for a chuckle. Sure, even the beer-drinking public was probably in no mood to snicker at this sort of thing back when Congress was devoting itself to berating the suits (and, um, campaign contributors) for wrecking Middle America’s 401(k)s. But that was then. Now it’s the holiday season, and while news of bad corporate behavior continues apace, our attention has drifted. Hey, none of us was naughty, right? In other words, the Heineken spot is just edgy enough. It gives a feeling that this particular form of scandal was painful, but it’s also something we can leave behind as 2002 fades away, with a hearty goodbye and good riddance. And Martin, of course, provides the perfect, boozily indifferent soundtrack: Never mind your troubles, partner, just have another round already.