Monday, August 23, 2010

FedEx’s “Brown Bailout” attack ads are insultingly misleading, dishonest

This post originally appeared on my old “Joe Dellosa on Advertising” blog.

► FedEx is fighting UPS-backed legislation that would make it easier for some of FedEx's employees to unionize—but it’s doing so with loose language, useless polls, and an extremely audacious misuse of the word “bailout.”

Update on Aug. 24, 2010 at 3:32 AM posted below.
Update on Aug. 27, 2010 at 5:19 PM posted below.


Can't see the ad? Click here to watch it on YouTube.


First things first: I don’t have a dog in this fight between FedEx and UPS over labor regulations. I don’t work for, own stock in, or have financial interests in either company, and I’m not in a labor union. In short, this isn’t personal, and frankly, I don’t care too much about the inner workings of the courier industry.

But I do care when a company is so flagrantly misleading in its advertising, and when it so unapologetically plays with language in the process. And unfortunately, that’s what FedEx is doing with its anti-UPS “Brown Bailout” attack campaign.

■ State of the unions

Here’s the squabble between FedEx and UPS, in brief: Employees of FedEx Express, the express delivery subsidiary of FedEx that’s considered an airline, are covered by the Railway Labor Act (which applies to railroad companies and airlines). Employees of UPS, on the other hand, are covered by the broader National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRA allows for local, site-by-site unionizing, while the RLA requires workers to unionize nationally and under stricter regulations. Thus, workers covered by NLRA can more easily organize than workers covered by the RLA.

UPS and the Teamsters union have been lobbying Congress for an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act that would change the coverage of FedEx Express’s non-airline employees, including its truck drivers, to being under the NLRA instead of the RLA. UPS says it “supports the equal application of labor laws”; the Teamsters union asserts that “FedEx drivers aren’t pilots” and shouldn’t be covered by the RLA.

FedEx disagrees, saying that the change could result in “local work stoppages that interrupt the flow” of its customers’ shipments. And because UPS is pushing for legislation that may possibly hurt FedEx (and thus benefit UPS), FedEx is saying that this is tantamount to asking for a bailout from the government.

That’s what FedEx is calling a bailout—a change in the way FedEx Express’s truck drivers and other non-airline workers are categorized for the purpose of unionizing. That’s it. UPS is not asking for, nor is it receiving, taxpayer money; UPS is not in dire financial straits and does not require government assistance to stay afloat.

In other words, this doesn’t meet the definition of a bailout as government bailouts are generally understood (more on that later in this article), and it’s misleading for FedEx to call it such, knowing full well what the connotations of a “bailout” are to the American public in the current political climate.

But, it’s catchy and alliterative, so enter Brown Bailout.

■ Such great fights

Brown Bailout is the PR and advertising campaign undertaken by FedEx, under the “direction and responsibility” of Maury Lane, FedEx’s director of corporate communications. The international (and sometimes controversial) PR agency Burson-Marsteller is working with FedEx on the campaign.

I mention the agency because insurance giant AIG hired Burson-Marsteller to improve AIG’s public image after it had received a bailout (a real one) in 2008. There’s some measure of irony in Burson-Marsteller being tasked with trying to build up a company that received a bailout and trying to attack another by accusing it of doing the same, all in the space of a couple of years. It’s not an enviable job.

The centerpiece of the campaign is the Brown Bailout website, launched on June 9, 2009. There are pages where FedEx encourages visitors to write their legislators and sign a petition to “STOP The Brown Bailout!,” links to newspaper editorials and op-eds supporting FedEx’s position, and testimonials from people who purportedly support FedEx.

Lane said none of the people offering testimonials were paid for their participation; I called Guoqing Zhang, a University of Virginia PhD student who offered a testimonial, to verify this. He confirmed that he wasn’t paid (jokingly saying he wouldn’t mind if FedEx did), and said he recorded the video as a favor to a friend who worked at a PR agency. He also said he wasn’t familiar with the UPS/FedEx dispute, nor did he know it was over unionizing rules; all he thought he knew was that there was legislation that would prevent FedEx from shipping packages overnight, which would impede his research.

Elsewhere on the website, there are videos that parody UPS’s Whiteboard ads, complete with a guy with medium-length hair and an ersatz duplication of “Such Great Heights” as background music so lifelessly plagiaristic, you’d think it came from Owl City:


Can't see the ad? Click here to watch it on YouTube.


■ Defining “bailout”

So, what’s the definition of a bailout?

When I spoke with Maury Lane, he was adamant that FedEx was using the word “bailout” properly. He cited the Webster’s definition—“a rescue from financial distress”—and asked if I was “having an argument with Daniel Webster and his use of ‘bailout.’” (He meant Noah.) Sadly, my response—“I assure you, I’ve had very stern words with Mr. Merriam”—outed me as the world’s biggest dork ever.

Two points, dorkiness aside: First, it’s seriously doubtful that any fair observer can characterize UPS as being in “financial distress.” (George Will pointed out on July 15, 2009 in an otherwise FedEx-friendly column in the Washington Post that UPS’s revenue is 36 percent higher than FedEx’s.) And second, as this piece from NPR’s Morning Edition illustrates, consulting general-use dictionaries to define words that have specific meanings in the context of economic policy can be a silly exercise.

So let’s look up the word “bailout” in financial dictionaries.

Here’s the definition from Investopedia:

A situation in which a business, individual or government offers money to a failing business in order to prevent the consequences that arise from a business's downfall.

From Farlex Financial Dictionary:

To give money to a company so that it avoids bankruptcy and is able to continue operations.

And from InvestorWords.com:

The provision of financial help or liquidity to a corporation that otherwise would be on the brink of failure or bankruptcy.

You can find similar definitions from Wall Street Words, BusinessDictionary.com, and InvestorDictionary.com. AllBusiness.com offers a similar definition specific to the banking industry.

I don’t list these definitions to be pedantic, or to even insinuate that every business dictionary in existence will offer definitions exactly like these. (For instance, another AllBusiness.com entry defines “bailing out” in terms closer to Merriam-Webster’s.) Rather, this serves to illustrate that, while broad definitions of “bailout” may exist, the word is used and understood—by the mainstream media, by the general public—to refer to a specific action involving giving financial capital to a company so that it doesn’t go bankrupt.

Put it this way: The word “stimulus” has a specific meaning in economic policy discussions, especially after the 2009 stimulus act—“economic measures put together by the government to stimulate a floundering economy,” according to Investopedia. It also has a broad definition—“something that rouses or incites to activity,” from Merriam-Webster—that is so unspecific that it could apply to anything.

So if you’re having an economic discussion in this political climate, what would be the intellectually honest thing to do: Would it be to use the word “stimulus” as it’s understood in this context? Or would it be to use the word in a nonsensically broad manner while waving around a dictionary, and then accuse people who call you out on it of trying to pick a fight with Daniel Webster?

You may be tempted to cut FedEx some slack because it assiduously uses the phrase “legislative bailout,” ostensibly to draw a distinction between that and a “financial bailout.” Indeed, Lane used the phrase during my interview with him, during an interview for a June 8, 2009 Associated Press article, and in an op-ed he wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 11. But don’t bother—on the “Write Your Legislators” page on the Brown Bailout website, which is the landing page for many of the Brown Bailout banner ads, they clearly use the phrase “financial bailout.” Take a look:


Update on Aug. 24, 2010 at 3:32 AM: Sometime between this article's original publication at 6:38 PM yesterday and now, the word "financial" was deleted from the "Write Your Legislators" page. The screenshot above reflects the original wording that appeared on the Brown Bailout website before this article was published.

Also worth mentioning is that this blog's visitor log noted visits yesterday from a Burson-Marsteller IP address at 9:39 PM and a FedEx IP address at 9:48 PM. I hope I'm not being too presumptuous to think that the deletion of the word "financial" was a reaction to this article; in any case, thank you all for your readership.


So, back to the definition of “bailout.” As previously indicated, the two key components, by definition, of a government bailout are:

  1. The government is giving financial capital to a company, at (current or potential) taxpayer expense.
  2. The company receiving the financial capital is in an emergency financial situation, is faltering and failing, or is on the brink of bankruptcy.

What motivation does FedEx have for accusing UPS of asking for a bailout?

First, the (real) bailouts of the banking and auto industries are pretty unpopular among the American people. People from across the political spectrum—from anti-corporate liberals to Tea Party conservatives—are very wary of big corporations asking for government money, especially during a time of high unemployment and general economic insecurity. “Where’s my bailout?” is a common, exasperated cry.

By painting UPS as one such corporation, it helps foment anger towards the company—painting UPS as another greedy company with fat cat executives who can’t even run their own business. It appears to be working, too—if you check out the comments section on the Brown Bailout Facebook page, it’s littered with angry people hollering about how there should be “no more bailouts” and how this puts too much of a burden on taxpayers.

The second motivation FedEx might have is more insidious: Package delivery is an industry predicated on reliability and stability. After all, people who are overnighting packages usually have a compelling, “mission critical” reason as to why they need it delivered the next day. By casting aspersions on UPS’s stability as a company (remember, by definition, a company can only be bailed out if they’re in an emergency financial situation), FedEx is casting aspersions on UPS’s ability to do its job. Would you trust a company with your mission critical packages if you thought they’re on the verge of going under? Would you enter into a long-term relationship with a business that’s on the brink of bankruptcy?

I’m pretty sure that FedEx would really love it if everybody who saw the banner ad clicked it and wrote to their senator on FedEx’s behalf. But I’m just as sure that FedEx would still be pretty pleased if a lot of people didn’t click on it, as long as they’ve made an unconscious association between “UPS” and “bailout” in their minds.

■ Poll dancing

I pointed out to Maury Lane that I’m not the only one who thinks the use of the word “bailout” in this context is dubious, citing FactCheck.org’s analysis of FedEx’s campaign. Indeed, there was even a New York Times article published on June 9, 2009 that wondered if the campaign could harm FedEx’s brand, with disinterested advertising executives characterizing the use of the word “bailout” as “questionably ethical” and “a little bit of a bait and switch.”

“I can assure you, by market research and by conversations we’ve had around the country, you are in a small minority who doesn’t understand the word ‘bailout,’” Lane said.

He continued: “We just don’t agree, nor do large Americans [sic]—I mean, if you look at the research we did with Public Opinion Strategies that’s on the website, 85 percent of people oppose this bailout.”

This isn’t the first time Lane has cited polling in an interview about the Brown Bailout campaign; he did so as recently as April 26 with NPR:

Lane said FedEx has done polling.

"We found out that 9 out of 10 Americans don't like special-interest legislation like this, and that Congress, you know, with the very low popularity it has, should stay away from these kinds of things," Lane said.

FedEx touted the results of a June 2009 poll in a press release titled, “National Survey Shows Americans Oppose ‘Brown Bailout’ for UPS,” and, as Lane said, the Brown Bailout website provides the results of an April 2010 poll on a page titled, “Americans Overwhelmingly Agree with FedEx.” Neither page details what questions were asked nor the full results, but rather, a selection of results and FedEx’s presumptuous analysis.

When a corporation commissions polls to use in its advertising and PR, you should automatically be suspicious. The wording and order of the questions can skew any set of results, and statistics can be sliced and diced to support any manner of conclusions.

So I asked Lane if I could get the script used for the poll, as well as the full results. He referred me to the pollster FedEx used, Public Opinion Strategies. I called the pollster’s main office in Virginia to ask; the person who answered said no one in the office at the moment knew about the FedEx poll and said that they’d get back to me. Nobody from Public Opinion Strategies did, nor did anybody respond to several follow-up emails.

An email from the media contact at the Brown Bailout website (who appears to be a Burson-Marsteller employee) said that “all the relevant information about the poll can be found on the brown bailout website” and they “don't have any other information to release.”

And finally, in a follow-up call with Lane, he repeatedly refused to confirm whether or not FedEx had the script and the full results in its possession, instead saying: “They [Public Opinion Strategies] did the poll. They own the methodology. You need to get it from them.” (It’s worth pointing out that that wasn’t a “no,” and in any case, what corporation would commission a poll and then not have the full results?)

Update on Aug. 27, 2010 at 5:19 PM: Neil Newhouse, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, emailed me yesterday, saying he could not release the full results nor the exact wording of the polls to me. He wrote:


Thanks for your interest in the poll we did on the Fed Ex Brown Bailout issue. To the best of my knowledge, that poll has not been publicly released and is the property of our client.

They would have to release it, we can't.

When I asked if he could clarify whether it was FedEx or Public Opinion Strategies that developed the poll questions and whether FedEx hired Public Opinion Strategies to gauge or change public opinion, he wrote, "sorry, can't really discuss."

I called and emailed Maury Lane several times today, asking if he could release the full results and the exact wording of the polls given Newhouse's statement; he has not returned any of my calls or emails.


Needless to say, without the full results and the script, any statistics FedEx wants to tout are meaningless. And not to be an Obvious Oliver, but this makes it seem like FedEx’s desire to do a public opinion poll was less an earnest attempt to gauge public opinion accurately and more about having snappy statistics for use as soundbites in interviews.

In any case, we can try to infer what questions were asked from the information we do have. From the press release with the June 2009 results:

  • 81 percent of those polled believe FedEx and UPS have been operating successfully for decades, and since consumers have choices, competitive prices and service options, there is no need to change the laws.
  • 58 percent of those polled say they would be extremely or very concerned if Congress considered legislation that could make the overnight delivery system less reliable in the United States.
  • 67 percent of those polled oppose this proposed action by Congress to impose trucking regulations on FedEx Express.

No serious pollster would ever ask, “Do you believe that FedEx and UPS have been operating successfully for decades, and since consumers have choices, competitive prices, and service options, there is no need to change the laws?” and expect to get unbiased answers. And asking people if they’re concerned about legislation that would reduce the reliability of overnight delivery, and then asking, “Do you support this proposed action?” is hardly consistent with good polling practices.

From the Brown Bailout page with the April 2010 results:

  • Eighty-eight percent said this practice [of quietly placing lobbyist-written provisions in legislation that benefit only their company] is unfair
  • [M]ore than nine out of 10 respondents said the practice of “slipping language in laws and hoping no one notices” should be discontinued by Congress.
  • Nine out of 10 of those surveyed rate overnight shipping as important to the U.S. economy.
  • Moreover, three out of four Americans say it is important for small businesses to be able to send and receive packages overnight.
  • [N]early eight out of 10 Americans say it would be unacceptable if individuals and businesses could no longer count on overnight shipping in the United States.

Well, yeah, and in a related story, nearly nine out of ten Americans believe that murder is bad and kittens are cute. And look, I can do that too—if I were a pollster hired by UPS or the Teamsters, I could ask questions like:

  • Do you think it’s fair that it’s harder for FedEx employees to secure fair wages and health benefits than UPS employees who do the exact same job?
  • Do you think employees should have the right to make sure they’re paid a fair wage and are able to make sure that their children have health insurance?
  • Do you support or oppose FedEx’s attempt to squash the rights of its employees to secure fair wages and health benefits?

But I wouldn’t, because those are obviously questions that would elicit biased responses that contain no meaningful information. Of course, if you’re more interested in changing public opinion rather than gauging it, then it’s no problem. And honestly, what did FedEx expect from a pollster that features this graphic on its home page?



■ Why this matters

To be clear, you shouldn’t shed any tears for UPS. It’s a multibillion-dollar corporation that can take care of itself—or at least, hire lobbyists to do so. And they haven’t exactly been perfect angels during this whole dispute; the Washington Post reported on Aug. 7, 2009 that some UPS employees said they were coerced by their company to write letters to their lawmakers supporting UPS.

But it’s not as if FedEx is this scrappy little operation that needs your support to have a fighting chance against big, bad Brown. They, too, have lobbyists, and they have the support of influential legislators. Even FedEx’s home-state senators, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, jointly wrote a letter to the New York Times on July 20 supporting FedEx, though not by name. Considering the tens of thousands of dollars FedEx has given both Alexander and Corker in this election cycle alone, it’s good to know FedEx is getting their money’s worth. (UPS and the Teamsters also pour tons of cash into politicians’ coffers, of course.)

In other words, average Americans with no stake in the matter really shouldn’t waste their time doing pro bono lobbying work for FedEx.

During my interview with Maury Lane, he said I was “wrong” and “myopic,” said that I “don’t understand the issue,” that “this whole campaign is lost” on me, and that my “knowledge of Washington needs a primer.” He even suggested that I should be writing about ads for erectile dysfunction drugs instead. (Yeah, I don't know either.)

That stuff doesn’t bother me. But here’s what does bother me, if for no other reason than it betrays a terrible mindset of plenty of people who work in advertising and PR: During an exchange about the appropriateness of the word “bailout,” Lane said, “You don’t have a better word.”

And it’s kind of true—this dispute is hard to boil down to a catchy two-word phrase. “BrownBailout.com” is much snappier than “FedExOpposesTheAttemptByUPSToChangeLaborRegulations.com.” But just because it’s difficult to be catchy and accurate doesn’t give you permission to be inaccurate; that’s the sort of logic that allows FreeCreditScore.com to call itself that even though it’s not really free. We let advertisers do this all the time, but we really shouldn’t: this attitude fosters a culture of language manipulation and weasel-word dishonesty that’s corrosive, and it represents laziness and disrespect on the part of the advertiser and its agency.

FedEx has every right to fight for legislation that benefits it and to use advertising to make its case to the American public; it just needs to be honest about it. Until FedEx publicly acknowledges that the Brown Bailout campaign is predicated on obfuscation and a misuse of language—and until FedEx apologizes to all of us who have seen these ads—we’d all be well-advised to roll our eyes and laugh the next time FedEx’s corporate communications office tries to tell us anything.

You can email me at jdellosa@gmail.com. And no, this whole article wasn't just a roundabout way to take a cheap shot at Owl City. (That was fun, though.)

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