Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Some of Allstate’s “Mayhem” ads are strangely sexist, misogynistic

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

► Allstate is trying to step away from its more traditional advertising to be more “evocative” with its “Mayhem” ad campaign, but the insurance company produced a couple of commercials that are strangely contemptuous of young women.

Update on Sept. 29, 2010 at 4:21 PM: This article was republished on Jezebel today; apparently, a friend who said that she was going to email the link to Jezebel wasn't kidding. In any case, welcome to Jezebel readers! I'm enjoying reading all the comments, including the ones that disagree with the analysis (of which there's plenty).

Just one note: A commenter asked why I was using the phrase "typical teenage girl" when the "Pink SUV" ad doesn't say that; while the :30 spot doesn't use the phrase, the :15 spot does. (The :15 spot is linked within the article.)

Update on Oct. 17, 2010 at 6:30 PM: Allstate has released a new TV spot in its "Mayhem" ad campaign that mocks teenage boys. The commercial, "Lawn Game," was posted on Allstate's YouTube channel on Oct. 14. Please click here for my placeholder update while I work on posting a full follow-up.

In July, Allstate launched its “Mayhem” series of advertisements. Dean Winters, known for his role as Ryan O’Reilly on the HBO prison drama Oz, plays Mayhem, a sort of personification of all that can go wrong for a car owner— a “random windstorm” that causes a branch to fall onto your car, a “filthy rich executive” who sues you after he slams on his brakes and you rear-end him, and so on.

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

The message, as the disembodied voice of Dennis Haysbert tells us at the end of each commercial? Mayhem is supposedly everywhere and takes all different forms, and Allstate can protect you from mayhem.

They’re mildly amusing ads that probably wouldn’t register too strongly on anybody’s radar—except that, in two of the commercials (“Pink SUV” and “Jogger”), Allstate and its ad agency, the Chicago-based Leo Burnett, decided to take strangely mean-spirited, contemptuous swipes at young women. To put it plainly, the ads are misogynistic—or, at least, strikingly disrespectful of young women.

That a company treats women with disdain in its advertising isn’t particularly noteworthy; tons of commercials for beer and body sprays belong to the “women are stupid sluts with big breasts” school of copywriting. (And yes, it’s totally a safety school.) However, that a company as benign as Allstate, selling a product as insipid as car insurance, feels comfortable taking cheap shots at young women in a national ad campaign suggests a normalization of sexism that is noteworthy. And it’s worth exploring—even for those who are, at this very moment, rolling their eyes and muttering about oversensitivity and the PC police.

 Pink SUVs and stereotypes

Here’s the first TV spot, “Pink SUV,” in which Mayhem is a “typical teenage girl” driving the titular pink SUV. See if you can spot all the teenage girl stereotypes!

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

Here are the ones I found:

  1. Girls are materialistic (pink SUV, pink sunglasses, shiny cell phone).
  2. Girls are chatterboxes who gossip all the time.
  3. Girls can’t concentrate on driving and will text while behind the wheel.
  4. Girls’ conversations are stupid and vapid.
  5. Girls bastardize the English language with their dumb slang (“BFF,” “OMG”).
  6. Girls have no loyalty to each other (Becky kissed Mayhem’s crush).
  7. Girls are easily “emotionally compromised.”
  8. Girls hate other girls (“OMG, Becky’s not even hot”), and their friendships with each other are shallow and transient.
  9. Girls can’t drive and will hit parked cars.
  10. Girls have no sense of responsibility or ethics and have no qualms about hitting and running.

Allstate is particularly proud of this spot. On the official Facebook fan page for Mayhem, Allstate notes that Mayhem is, emphasis mine, “everything from a moody teenage girl to a wild deer out chewing on leaves.”

I’m not interested in debating whether or not these stereotypes are true, mostly because it’s pointless to try to prove or disprove stereotypes. Stereotypes are stereotypes usually because they happened to ring true to some people, and I don’t deny that there are some girls who do hate other girls or drive poorly.

But nobody who’s not a jackass would seriously assert that every single girl in the world is materialistic, gossipy, or awful at driving (unless you’ve met every single girl in the world, you wouldn’t know), so usually anecdotal evidence is trotted out to “prove” that these stereotypes are true for “most” girls—in other words, evidence in the form of, “Every girl I know is x, so while I’m not saying all girls are x, you have to admit, it’s the norm.” But if you take that seriously (and let’s be honest—even if we don’t admit it, we all tend to weigh our own anecdotal evidence heavily in our minds), there are two problems.

First, there’s sampling bias—bias that occurs when the people on which you’re basing your conclusions about a group aren’t representative of that group. If you’re the sort of person who’s inclined to believe that all girls are materialistic, you’re more likely—consciously or unconsciously—to be drawn to girls who are materialistic. People are drawn to those who prove their assumptions correct, after all; dealing with challenges to one’s assumptions can be taxing.

And second, there’s confirmation bias—selectively looking at evidence that proves our beliefs, while ignoring evidence that doesn’t. In other words, if you’re inclined to believe that girls are bad drivers, you’ll remember every time a girl nearly hits you, but you’ll ignore all the times a guy nearly hit you—or, at the very least, not hold it against guys in general. Although I’m hesitant to cite the webcomic xkcd (which has its own issues), this strip, titled “How It Works,” is particularly illustrative:

Again, I’m not saying that there isn’t a single girl who’s a bad driver or materialistic or easily emotionally compromised; indeed, I’ve known girls who are all those things. But I’ve known guys who are all those things, too, and so have most people.

I asked Raleigh Floyd, a spokesman for Allstate, about the stereotypes used in the Pink SUV ad. He said that he couldn’t comment specifically on the stereotypes being used because he wasn’t on the creative team, but he defended using stereotypes in general.

“I know that, for the majority for the campaign as a whole, the goal was to portray scenarios that the viewing public would recognize,” Floyd said. “And to some extent, that would rely on some stereotypes, perhaps, or else how else do they recognize them?”

How else? Probably with copywriting that isn’t lazy and doesn’t needlessly marginalize an entire group of people with well-worn clich├ęs that help justify disrespect and contempt towards them. But sure, if you’re going for a cheap laugh and you can’t be bothered to do your job well, by all means, do the whole “pick on girls” thing.

(I called and emailed Leo Burnett several times to try to arrange an interview with someone at the agency about the campaign. The calls went unreturned, and after being sent some friendly yet ultimately unhelpful emails, I stopped getting responses.)

 Acceptable targets

The truth is, young women—and particularly teenage girls—are more or less “acceptable targets” in our culture and particularly in advertising. That is to say, you can pick on teenage girls and mock them in a way that doesn’t register the same instant, universal disapproval as mocking most other groups.

For example, could Allstate run an ad with Mayhem saying he’s a “typical black driver” who gets distracted by someone selling fried chicken and watermelons? Or an ad in which Mayhem is a “typical Asian driver” who is congenitally incapable of operating a car? Absolutely not—the ads would be correctly labeled as racist, and Allstate would fear blowback from consumers.

And yet, Allstate doesn’t fear blowback when it takes a shot at young women. Why? Ostensibly because it’s culturally okay to mock them. (You might be tempted to argue that Allstate wouldn’t fear blowback from mocking men, but that’s an apples-to-oranges argument. Men haven’t faced the same historical discrimination as women, and men have more institutional power and influence in our culture than women.)

I know this is sounding dangerously close to White Knighting, but it’s not. (At least, I don’t think it is, though you’re more than welcome to call me out if you disagree.) I don’t think girls or women are fragile little flowers that need perpetual care and rescuing, and they’re fully capable of taking care of themselves.

But consider this: What does being a “typical teenage boy” mean? Only one negative stereotype—horniness—comes to mind, right? And it’s not even that negative; there’s a sort of an “atta boy!” playfulness implied. But a whole range of criticisms—shallow, stupid, petty, emotional—spring up when you think of a “typical teenage girl.”

When girls are told, over and over again (in real life, in the media), that being a “typical teenage girl” means being shallow, stupid, petty, and emotional, what does that do to a girl’s self-respect? How does that affect how society treats girls? How does that affect how girls treat themselves? There’s something messed up about telling girls that they’re supposed to be bitchy, and then complaining when you run into bitchy girls.

In the Mayhem ad campaign, Mayhem personifies either non-humans (a poorly-secured satellite disha wild deer) or narrowly-defined, absurdist caricatures (a rich CEOa navigationally-challenged fourth-string quarterback). But “young women” aren’t non-humans, nor are they narrowly-defined as a group. Allstate is then saying, without any qualification, that women, by virtue of their inherent womanness, are mayhem when they’re near a car.

Raleigh Floyd said Allstate has received feedback about sexism in the ads but wouldn’t comment as to whether or not Allstate is planning to pull the ads. When I asked Floyd if he thought the concerns over sexism in the ads were reasonable, he said, “I don’t think it’s the company’s place to decide whether someone else’s opinion is reasonable or not”—which, by the way, isn’t a we disagree, but they’re reasonable, or at least a yes, we understand the concerns.

“I think the bigger point here is, while we are certainly trying to evoke, we aren’t trying to offend,” Floyd said. But regardless of whether or not Allstate was trying to offend, did they seriously not see how people might view this as pretty messed up?

(By the way, I’ve heard kind of a half-assed defense of the ad in the form of, “They’re not making fun of all teenage girls, just the shallow ones.” First of all, no—the ad clearly says “teenage girl” with no caveats. Second, I doubt “They’re not making fun of all Asians, just the ones that can’t drive” would be a legitimate excuse. But maybe most importantly, girls should be allowed to like so-called girly things—the color pink, boys, BFFs—without being dismissed out of hand, and without having to feel the onus of “defending your sex” on their shoulders.)

 No body’s perfect

Here’s the other TV spot, “Jogger,”  in which Mayhem is “a hot babe out jogging.”

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

Mayhem, decked out in pink once again, says she’s jogging to “make sure this”—pointing to her body—“stays a ten.”A guy drives by and is so distracted by the jogger that he crashes into a lamppost.

First, nice touch implying the only reason young women go out jogging is to make sure she can maintain a hot body. Could she be jogging for her health? Or maybe she wants to stay in shape because she’s into sports? Nah—it must be because she’s vain.

But more importantly, why is the jogger “mayhem” in this case? Isn’t the real “mayhem” the guy who’s so easily distracted and so creepy that he leers at a woman long enough to crash into a lamppost? It would seem that that ad isn’t just more logical; the copy practically writes itself (“I’m a desperate teenage boy who gets off on spandex,” Dean Winters could snarl). But no, for whatever reason, Allstate and Leo Burnett went out of its way to, once again, make a young woman at fault for causing an accident.

Or more precisely, in this ad, it’s the young woman’s body that’s at fault. It’s actually an interesting switch-up; usually in advertising, young women are told that they should feel bad for not having an attractive body. In this ad, young women should feel bad for having a body that’s too attractive—look too hot and you cause accidents, and some poor innocent guy’s cut-rate insurance won’t cover it. In conclusion, all young women should be ashamed of their bodies. Or something.

What’s even more disconcerting about the ad is that it stealthily (and, giving Allstate and Leo Burnett the benefit of the doubt, unintentionally) perpetuates the idea that women should be instinctively blamed for bad things happening because of how they’re dressed. After all, implied in the ad is the idea of, “It’s not my fault, look at what she’s wearing!”—an excuse that’s been used to justify all manner of sexual harassment and assault.

 Why this matters

I’m not saying Allstate is singlehandedly making the world a harder place for young women, or that the company is some sort of champion of misogyny. Indeed, sexism is a complicated problem with countless factors at play. But these ads for Allstate aren’t helping.

And the fact that they’re coming from Allstate isn’t helping, either. As mentioned earlier, you sort of expect this from ads for beer or body sprays, and it’s received accordingly—oh, it’s coming from Axe or Miller Light, of course they’re being asses. It’s not that it’s okay when it comes from Axe or Miller Light; it’s just that it’s understood that their advertising shouldn’t be interpreted as an indication of what’s acceptable.

Allstate, on the other hand, is an insurance company. Car insurance is boring, Allstate isn’t edgy, and this is more or less a general audience campaign. Accordingly, when Allstate says that young women are dumb and vain in an ad campaign, it carries a lot more weight in terms of indicating what reflects mainstream thought. It’s the difference between Maxim magazine running a cover that says “Slutty girls are great!,” and People magazine running it.

Raleigh Floyd said that the Mayhem campaign was intended to try to reach specifically young adults, aged 25 to 34. Considering that everybody needs car insurance, it’s a strange strategy to run ads that mock such a broad group (young women), especially when that group is a part of your target demographic.

And the weird thing is, it’s not as if Allstate is a company that’s known for sexism. The company’s charitable arm, the Allstate Foundation, even has a domestic violence program among its core concerns. How can a company that demonstrably cares about domestic violence—a problem that stems in part from a heinously warped view of women—run ads that help warp views towards women? (I’m not saying that seeing an ad that makes fun of a teenage girl will indisputably lead to domestic violence; that’s ridiculous. Again, though—it doesn’t really help either.)

This criticism isn’t unique; indeed, several feminist blogs have criticized Allstate for the ads, and rightfully so. The ads are lazy, cheap shots that join countless more lazy, cheap shots. It’s not healthy for girls and women to be constant targets for this stuff, and it’s not healthy for us as a society to be okay with it. Allstate and Leo Burnett should be embarrassed.

 About your writer

Feministy critiques of advertising seem to invite questions about the author’s intentions, so I’ll be upfront with you all, and you can decide for yourself. You can skip this if you don’t care.

I’m a straight guy (and pro-LGBT rights). I consider myself a feminist (though I don’t make a habit of loudly announcing it because doing so is reminiscent of the guys who minor in Women’s Studies in a ill-conceived attempt to get laid). I think of myself as a feminist of the “feminism is the radical notion that women are people” mold; accordingly, I don’t think that women are more special, enlightened, or otherwise better than men (although that’s kind of a straw man, because I don’t know any feminist, male or female, who does). A pessimist might frame this as “women are just as bad as men”-style feminism.

I think girls’ and women’s body images, intelligence, and worth are specifically and pervasively questioned and attacked in the media (and particularly advertising), and I think that has to have some sort of cumulative effect. Thus, it’s worth calling out whenever it happens. On the other hand, one of my favorite movies is (500) Days of Summer, which I’ve heard totally blows my feminist cred. I also love Juno, but I don’t know what that does with said cred. (Though my friends have said I love Juno because I think “Ellen Page is hot,” which, well yeah, but it’s a good movie and she’s talented, damn it.)

Also, hypocrisy alert: I arguably used a teenage girl stereotype in this op-ed I wrote for my college paper last June with the line about BFF charm bracelets. Oops.

So there you go—feel free to write in with accusations of White Knighting or oversensitivity or faux feminism, or if you think I have bad taste in movies. Other comments are welcome, too.

You can email me at And for what it’s worth, I minored in education, so there.

Monday, August 30, 2010

FedEx’s misleading “Brown Bailout” campaign hits 150,000 Facebook fans

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

► FedEx is bragging about reaching 150,000 “fans” on its Brown Bailout Facebook page, but the comments left by its fans indicate that FedEx is misleading its audience.

Note: This is a follow-up to an Aug. 23 article about FedEx’s “Brown Bailout” campaign, on which the PR agency Burson-Marsteller is working with FedEx.

I don’t mean to beat this story to death—believe me, I’d be pretty pleased if I never have to see or write the word bailout ever again—but here’s a brief follow-up while I’m working on some new articles.

Over the weekend, FedEx’s “Brown Bailout” Facebook page reached 150,000 fans (or, technically, “likes”), and FedEx commemorated the milestone by changing its profile picture (below) and asking its fans to suggest the page to their friends to help FedEx reach 175,000.

As discussed previously, the issue I have with this campaign is that UPS isn’t asking for, nor is it receiving, a bailout. Rather, it’s asking for a change in labor regulations that would bring some of FedEx’s employees under the same unionizing rules as UPS employees—basically, a change that would make it easier for some of FedEx’s employees to unionize.

I have no opinion on the matter, and FedEx is free to make its case as to why the unionizing rules should remain the same. But it should do so honestly—and calling UPS’s lobbying efforts over labor regulations a “bailout” when UPS isn’t asking for taxpayer money, isn’t receiving taxpayer money, isn’t on the brink of bankruptcy or failure, and doesn’t need taxpayer money to stay afloat is dishonest and misleading.

Earlier this month, I asked Maury Lane, director of corporate communications at FedEx, if the average consumer thinks that the word “bailout” can be used so broadly. He replied, “Apparently, 110,000 people get it on Facebook, which, by the way, is a lot.”

It is a lot. So let’s take a look at what some of those people on Facebook are saying; these are actual comments from the Brown Bailout Facebook page posted within the past two weeks.

(While I’ve redacted the last names, I’ve linked each name to the original post on the Brown Bailout Facebook page, where you can see their full names and photos. The links are there merely to prove that they're real posts and not to embarrass the people. Accordingly, please don’t harass the people—although, in the case of Diana and her ethnic slur, it might be tempting.)

Joe F.:

Get your hand out of my pocket mr. government. I can't afford to even go to work anymore. No one is going to bail me out if I spend every thing I don't have and then some. Have you heard about the new Obama Plan at McDonald's - You get to order anything you want and the person behind you gets to pay for it. Go figure.

Terry H.:

when are they going stop lining their pockets with money and screwing the seniors who are more then ups the seniors could help bail out the goverment but they need bail out

Paul S.:

for one. this country needs to stop aiding other countries and start aiding our own. no wonder the economy suks right now because no one trust our government. I certainly dont. stop bailing out rich companies and start helping the small companies that really keep our economy going. We need to stand up as people and fight our government and demand a change because this government is supposed to be run by the people, not the career politicians.

Diana R.:

stop spending money that isnt yours it belongs to we the people and we should be able to vote on the spending so knock it off and if you got rid of all these wetbacks our states wouldnt be in so much debt they break federal laws by crossing the border and they are not just mexicans either and and our government doesnt give a damn like what the hell is wrong with this picture HELLO

Leo C.:

If UPS is not making a profit let them FAIL ... Fed -Ex or someone else will take up the slack it's called CAPITALISM !!!

Gabriel M.:

Fuck bail outs. That's a cover term for, "buy out"... why do you think the banks that were bailed out give foreclosed homes to AIPAC? Bail out = Government ownership of corporation / company.

Kent T.:

What ever happened to the best company wins? Your business doesn't do a good enough job, you don't do as much business. Simple. The taxpayers are fed up with bailing all these companies out. Quit handing out checks at the taxpayers expense, Gubment.

Betty D.:


Kevin G.:

It's not fair for taxpayer's to constantly fund these sort of remedial support.

Wanda E.:

I'm sick of the bailouts and if companies can't make it on their own, which includes ups then they can just go bottoms up for all I care.

Tyrone S.:

I always thought that in a capitalist country if your business failed or if you didn't make enough money to keep it afloat you went out of business none of this bail-out crap. If you want to bail out someone bail out the millions of people that have lost their jobs when their company closed or moved off shore.

Judy H.:


Angela J.:

Good grief! More abuse of our tax dollars! Every time I blink I open my eyes to find more corruption.

Lourdes N.:


Daniel R.:

No more bailouts!!! Succeed or fail on your own merits. That's the way the founders intended this country to be, and it's the only way it works! GOD Bless America!!!

While there are comments on the Facebook page that seem to at least understand that the issue is over labor regulations, the above comments—and the tons more like them on the Facebook page—are not the words of people who understand how FedEx is using (or misusing) the word “bailout.” It’s clear they believe UPS is failing, needs taxpayer money to stay afloat, or is taking taxpayer money. That’s not an accident, either—those are exactly the ideas that come to mind when you accuse a company of asking for a “bailout.”

If FedEx were so sure that its Brown Bailout fans would still be supportive of its cause if they had all the facts, it wouldn’t mind correcting these (very frequent) misconceptions whenever they pop up on its Facebook page, or posting a clarification. That FedEx isn’t correcting these misconceptions at all shows that it’s fine with the misinformation it’s helping spread.

More strikingly, FedEx is betraying a very contemptuous attitude towards its consumers by allowing them to make fools of themselves on its behalf. Bragging about reaching 150,000 fans is just rubbing it in.

If FedEx has anything resembling respect for its customers, the American public, or even just intellectual honesty, it should knock this nonsense off now.

You can email me at The next articles, which I promise are coming soon, deal with sexism and smoking—in other words, a fun change of pace!

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

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,, and 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 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’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. “” is much snappier than “” 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 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 And no, this whole article wasn't just a roundabout way to take a cheap shot at Owl City. (That was fun, though.)