Showing posts with label JDOA blog posts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label JDOA blog posts. Show all posts

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dove's hypocritical campaign for its “Go Sleeveless” deodorant creates insecurites

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

► Dove is trying to invent a new, fake insecurity for women (unattractive underarms?) in order to shill its new Go Sleeveless Deodorant, completely blowing whatever credibility it had as a trustworthy brand that cares about the self-esteem of young women.

Last month, Dove (the beauty brand owned by Unilever, not the chocolate brand owned by Mars) made a stir with its Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant. The stir was not a positive one.

The deodorant—whose name is officially stylized as “Dove go sleeveless Deodorant,” with lowercase letters to emphasize casualness of going sleeveless or something—purports to beautify women’s underarms. In addition to its duties reducing underarm odor, Dove promises that Go Sleeveless will provide women with softer, smoother, and more attractive underarms in just five days.

According to a Dove press release dated April 4, Go Sleeveless was inspired by a 2010 study conducted by Unilever with market research firms Omnibus and TNS that supposedly found that 93 percent of women think their underarms are unattractive. Dove to the rescue, right?

Well, no. Many in the media quickly (and appropriately) called shenanigans on Dove’s new deodorant and its associated marketing campaign: Slate called it yet another instance in a long line of marketing efforts designed to foment fake insecurities in women and profit off selling them a cure. American Public Media’s Marketplace did a couple of person-on-the-street interviews with women who expressed no pre-existing concerns about their underarms.

And Stephen Colbert, who’s one of the media’s most astute advertising critics, had the definitive takedown of Dove during the April 13 episode of The Colbert Report. Colbert said “women have now learned that their armpits are hideous” with Unilever’s help and called the Dove’s new deodorant a “breakthrough shame-o-vation.”

Their points are all well-taken, and this should be pretty embarrassing for Dove. After all, even if we give Dove the benefit of the doubt and say that there are probably some women who do feel concerned about the appearance of their underarms, it's audacious for Dove to present its product as a solution to some sort of universal problem affecting virtually every American woman.

What hasn’t been mentioned quite as often is why this should be very embarrassing for Dove: with this advertising campaign—a campaign predicated on shamelessly fabricating a fictitious anxiety and foisting it upon women—Dove has completely blown its brand identity as the beauty brand that cares about the self-esteem and emotional well-being of young women. Oops.

 Cam-pain for real beauty

The last time a Dove campaign got any real attention was its much-lauded and award-winning Campaign for Real Beauty, launched in 2004. In the campaign, Dove criticized our culture’s perception of beauty as unrealistic and damaging to young girls with smartprovocative ads showing the artificiality of the beauty industry.

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

In other ads, Dove hired models more representative of average women, specifically eschewing thinner, perfectly airbrushed models. (Dove later got criticized when it turned out those models' photos were retouched, just like any other model's photos.)

But even without word of the entirely-unsurprising Photoshop job, it’s easy to see why Dove launching a Campaign for Real Beauty is at least a little hypocritical. Dove, after all, is still a beauty brand, and ultimately, its goal is to sell girls and women products that will make them prettier. And that just doesn’t jibe with a “feel good about the body you have” message—because, in essence, Dove is encouraging girls to feel good enough about themselves that they don’t need to buy all those products from Dove’s competitors, but not good enough that they can forego Dove products.

Don’t get me wrong—as an advertising cynic who takes an ardently feminist approach to advertising to and about women, I really like the general spirit of the campaign. But it’s entirely insincere for a beauty company to criticize the beauty industry while pretending it’s not a part of the problem. Would we give any credence to McDonald’s running ads on childhood obesity if they didn’t acknowledge the existence of Happy Meals?

And that’s the problem with the Campaign for Real Beauty—it’s co-opting a message of positive body image for the purpose of selling products that rely on girls and women feeling that their bodies are imperfect. To put it in starker terms, it’s commodifying girls’ self-esteem by turning it into just another marketing opportunity, and that’s particularly messed up. It’s one thing, after all, to be upfront and tell girls they’re ugly and that they should buy your product; it’s quite another to pretend to be empowering and supportive while passive-aggressively reminding girls that this great new Dove cream can really help them look great.

A couple of other criticisms of Dove’s campaign: There’s the implicit message that some women are more “real” than others, and that attractive or thin women don’t count as real. I’m pretty sure pitting groups of women against each other isn’t the most productive way to go about the whole empowerment thing.

Most damningly, there’s the stubborn little fact that Dove’s parent company, Unilever, also owns the Axe brand, which has no problem celebrating supposedly “fake” beauty in its ads. This was most ably demonstrated in Rye Clifton’s remarkable mash-up between a Dove Campaign for Real Beauty ad and various Axe ads.

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

Lucky for Dove, those criticisms mostly didn’t stick, and the Campaign for Real Beauty is generally regarded as a major success for Dove. Its brand image as an empowering, pro-girl image is one Dove both values and actively cultivates—it has a “Dove Movement for Self-Esteem” website and brags about its Dove Self-Esteem Fund, which supports organizations like the Girl Scouts and Girls Inc.

In fact, as recently as April 4, Dove proudly tweeted that “[e]ach time you buy @Dove, you help us and our partners provide inspiring self-esteem programs to girls”—self-esteem that couldn’t possibly be belied by a tweet calling Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant a “must have accessory” if girls are considering going sleeveless.

 Poll dancing

So this brings us back to Dove’s new deodorant. Here’s the marketing challenge facing Dove: How do you create a fake insecurity, push it onto women, and sell them a product that will fix that insecurity, all without looking like complete hypocrites after all that Campaign for Real Beauty stuff?

The answer lies in that press release, which repeatedly notes the results of Dove’s supposed survey: “Perceptions of unattractive underarms have women shunning sleeveless attire,” the headline screams. According to the study, “almost all women feel their underarms are unattractive”—the exact figure being “93 percent,” as mentioned later in the press release.

Remember, press releases are nothing more than marketing departments’ attempts to get the attention of news outlets to do a story on their products, framed the way the marketing department would like. It may be too much to hope that a press release is simply reprinted verbatim (although, sadly, that does happen a lot), but a slyly-written release can nudge a reporter into unwittingly writing a puff piece for a product.

So why does Dove want to emphasize the results of its market research so badly? (You don't see Mountain Dew putting out press releases stating that “90 percent of men think that Baja Blast is the most extreme flavor” when they roll out a new flavor.) Because that’s the way it can get out of looking like a bunch of self-esteem-crushing hypocrites. By pretending that Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant is merely addressing a well-established problem rather than inventing one, Dove gets to shrug off criticism by saying, “Hey, we’re just responding to women’s needs.”

And it kind of worked. In a March 30 Wall Street Journal article, the “93 percent” statistic is repeated uncritically:

Dove Ultimate Go Sleeveless, which hits U.S. stores this week, claims its formula of specialized moisturizers will give women better-looking underarms in five days. It was inspired by Unilever PLC research that found 93% of women consider their armpits unattractive.

To its credit, the Wall Street Journal does cite the company as the source of the finding, and three paragraphs of the story are used to explain that being seen as fabricating a need is a risky strategy. But the reporting does, without question, take the company’s word that the research inspired the product, rather than raise the possibility that this purported “research” could just be another component of the marketing campaign.

On the other hand, WNBC, the NBC affiliate in New York City, just went ahead and handed Dove free ad time. During WNBC’s LX New York (which is admittedly more an entertainment and lifestyle show but is still hosted by what appear to be journalists), the host conducted an interview with Dove spokeswoman and Gossip Girl star Jessica Szohr about the deodorant. And by “interview,” I mean “hackish shill-session.”

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

Consider this example of sparkling journalism from the clip above:

WNBC Host: A lot of women, apparently 93 percent of them who responded—

Szohr: Feel uncomfortable.

WNBC Host: Yeah!

Szohr: Yeah.

WNBC Host: Which I was kind of surprised by.

Szohr: Yeah. And this product basically, if you—when you use it, within five days, you get softer, smoother underarms. So that way, when you use halter tops, or tank tops, or dresses that show that area, you can feel comfortable and not self-conscious.

WNBC Host: So if people join in this campaign, they get to go shopping with you, maybe?

The press release offered by Dove doesn’t offer too much in terms of details about the survey itself; this is the entirety of the information about the survey:

Through a Unilever, Omnibus and TNS Research International the go sleeveless: Uncovering Underarms. An online, anonymous survey was taken by 534 women, ages 18-64 to gather insights on understanding the level of anxiety women feel about the appearance of their underarms.

And that’s not helpful. It’s journalistically unsound to cite poll results in news stories without seeing the complete questionnaire and results. Trusting a company to interpret results in an unbiased matter is foolish, and trusting a company’s poll as legitimate without at least giving it a once-over is just silly. This is doubly true when a poll itself is used as a cornerstone in an actual marketing campaign.

Plus, it’s unclear as to whether or not this poll is statistically valid. Dove wrote its press release suggesting some of its results can be generalized to the population (“93 percent of women think their underarms are unattractive,” Dove writes, and not 93 percent of women surveyed), but other statistics use the qualification (“Over half … of the women in the study”; “1 in 3 of the women studied”). The online nature of the survey raises more questions about the poll’s validity, too—the validity of online polls is often questioned due to issues with random sampling and self-selection bias.

So, I emailed Unilever and a media contact at Edelman (Unilever’s PR firm) and asked for the full questionnaire, with the exact wording and order of the questions, as well as the full results. I also asked very specific questions about the poll’s methodology, including if a random sample was used, how participants were recruited for the poll, and what the poll’s margin of error was.

After some friendly emails back and forth, Annette Evans of Edelman wound up emailing me this statement:

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the testing methodology of the go sleeveless: Uncovering Underarms study. This study was conducted by an independent third party market research supplier, to gather insights and provide statistically sound evidence.  This online, anonymous survey was taken by 534 women aged 18-64. The survey is statistically sound and adhered to industry-recognized guidelines and the highest quality standards.

Which is basically what the press release said. I emailed back, reiterating my desire for the full questionnaire and results and repeating my questions about methodology; alas, I didn’t hear back.

To be clear, I don’t blame Evans for sending an incredibly (and, more likely than not, deliberately) unhelpful statement. She’s just doing what her client likely instructed her to do. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were the first person to ask for the full questionnaire and results—that would explain a lack of even a boilerplate, “sorry, we’re not releasing that” refusal.

But here’s the thing. If Dove is willing to release a part of its market research—the part that helps its marketing effort—without letting reporters see the whole picture, it makes it look like Dove is actively hiding something. And if Dove is unwilling to answer very basic questions about the poll’s methodology, it makes the whole marketing campaign—as well as Dove’s brand image—look completely bogus.

(For a detailed explanation on why I think it's so important to get the full questionnaire and full results from Dove, please click here.)

 Why this matters

With its campaign for Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant, Dove appears to be trying to both manufacture and profit from the insecurities of its female customers. Dove is in the beauty industry, so that isn’t surprising.

It shouldn’t even be surprising that Dove is doing this after its whole Campaign for Real Beauty nonsense. A company that harshly criticizes the beauty industry while pretending that, somehow, it’s exempt from the criticism is hardly a paragon of consistency or self-awareness—and no number of donations to the Girl Scouts can change that.

What this should make abundantly clear is that “brand identity” or “brand personality” are meaningless concepts—or, at least, they should be. I don’t really get this tendency to anthropomorphize companies, but we should knock it off: by and large, companies exist to make money, and any personality they show is merely a means to that end. Nike isn’t an athletic company any more than Hallmark is a sentimental company. They’re companies. They make money. They assume whatever identity they feel best helps them make money.

And yes, this includes Dove. I don’t doubt that there are people who work for the Dove brand that care about the self-esteem and body images of young women; I would presume that many of its employees are women who have daughters. And I don’t doubt that many of its employees are earnest in their efforts to use the marketing resources of Dove to do a little good.

But we shouldn’t confuse those employees with the brand or the company. Dove makes its decisions based on what can help them sell enough body wash, deodorants, and creams to keep Unilever profitable. The Campaign for Real Beauty wouldn’t exist if Dove didn’t think it'd help Unilever make money, just as Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant wouldn’t exist if Dove didn’t think it’d be profitable.

On one hand, I’m tempted to just shrug and chalk it up to the amorality of big business. But on the other hand, I’m pretty annoyed that Dove’s presumption that the cause of helping girls develop a healthy body image is a purchasable commodity, to be bought when it suits the brand’s marketing goals and dropped when it doesn’t.

The people at Dove who actually care about young women should be embarrassed by this campaign, and the people who actually believe that Dove cares about young women should be disabused of that notion.

And at the very least, nobody should be stressing out about their underarms that much. I mean, even before this product came out, Jessica Szohr hardly seems to be losing sleep over hers…

…so neither should you.

You can email me at, or tweet me @JoeDellosa.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Unilever’s Dove uses dubious “Go Sleeveless” poll to address criticism

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

► Dove, criticized for inventing an insecurity for women, is justifying its new Go Sleeveless Deodorant by pointing to a study that says 93 percent of women think their underarms are unattractive but is refusing to release the actual poll or the full results.

This is an introduction of sorts to a fuller piece about Dove, its marketing campaign for the Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant, and the inconsistency of its "pro-self esteem" brand image. The expanded piece will appear either later today or tomorrow.

Last month, Unilever's Dove began a marketing campaign to promote its new Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant. The TV commercials for the deodorant promised women that they could have more beautiful underarms after using the product for just five days, which prompted many in the media to accuse Dove of attempting to invent a fabricated insecurity for women -- uh-oh, unattractive underarms! -- and profit from the resulting anxiety. Here's Stephen Colbert on the April 13 episode of The Colbert Report.

That a company in the beauty industry is trying to foment negative feelings in women about their bodies is certainly no surprise, but for Dove to do it seems hypocritical. Dove, after all, actively cultivates a reputation as a supportive, empowering brand for young women -- from its Campaign for Real Beauty to its Movement for Self-Esteem.

Possibly to fend off accusations of hypocrisy, Dove emphasized repeatedly in its press release about Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant that the deodorant is the result of market research that found that "almost all women feel their underarms are unattractive" -- 93 percent, apparently. (This statistic was repeated unquestioningly in media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and WNBC.) One can imagine Dove arguing, poll in hand, that it's not inventing a new insecurity but merely addressing a pre-existing insecurity.

Unfortunately, the press release contained very little information about the poll itself -- no mention of the exact questions asked, how the poll was conducted, or any discussion of the methodology. It's even not clear if the poll is really statistically valid.

So, I asked Dove if I could take a look at the poll myself. I wanted to see the complete questionnaire, with the exact wording and exact order of the questions, and I wanted to see the complete results. I also had specific questions about the poll's methodology, including whether a random sample was used, how participants were recruited, and what the margin of error for the poll was. After a few emails back and forth, Dove, through its PR firm, declined to let me see the complete questionnaire and results and chose not to answer my questions about methodology. Apparently, I was to take Dove's word for it.

That, needless to say, is a bad idea. If a company is willing to mention some poll results -- presumably, the results that benefit the company -- in its press releases and other marketing materials, it should be willing to release the full results, with a full questionnaire, with a full explanation of the poll's methodology. To do any less isn't just shady and dishonest; it also insults the intelligence of that company's customers and undermine that company's credibility. More importantly, reporters -- especially those who cover advertising and media -- shouldn't let companies get away with it.

What follows below is kind of a Stats 101 mini-primer as to why seeing the questionnaire -- with the exact wording, exact sequence of questions, and full results -- is so important, and why, without it, even a statistically-valid poll can be completely dishonest and manipulative. Since Dove refuses to release any of that, I can only speculate as to how it got the results it did. For all I know, Dove asked fair questions that yielded legitimate results; however, until Dove decides to be more forthcoming, we'd do well to assume the worst.

 Exact wording

Consider the most prominent statistic in the marketing campaign, the “93 percent of women think their underarms are unattractive” stat. It could be Dove just very plainly asked:

Do you think your underarms are unattractive?

A: Yes
B: No

Would 496 women out of 534 women in a supposedly representative sample say they have an active belief that their underarms are unattractive? That seems unlikely. So what if Dove actually asked this:

Do you think your underarms are attractive?

A: Yes
B: No

Only 38 women answering "yes" still seems low, but it’s a little more plausible than 496 actively affirming a belief that their underarms are unattractive. And in this case, if 496 women answered “no,” they’re not necessarily saying they think their underarms are unattractive; they just never thought of describing their underarms as particularly attractive. (It's like if someone asked me if I thought my index finger is attractive -- I'd answer "no," not because I think it's ugly, but because, as a normal index finger, it's neither attractive or unattractive.) Of course, without the original question phrasing, we just don't know.

 Full results

Now, what if the Dove poll asked the question in this manner (with hypothetical results in brackets):

How do you feel about your underarms’ appearance?

A: My underarms are always attractive. [7%]
B: Every once in a while, my underarms don’t look the best. [50%]
C: Occasionally, my underarms don’t look the best. [30%]
D: Often, my underarms don’t look the best. [10%]
E: My underarms are always unattractive. [3%]

I could imagine that, presented with these choices, only 7 percent of respondents affirming that their underarms are always attractive, with a vast majority picking less absolute choices. But if Dove wanted the statistic that 93 percent of women think their underarms are unattractive, it can just lump all the non-“always attractive” responses together -- it's a tricky interpretation of data that could be seen as technically true but is patently dishonest. Hence, the importance of full results.

 Exact sequence of questions

Finally, consider if before asking about their underarms’ appearance, respondents were asked a series of questions like these:

Have you ever noticed any bumps or pimples on your underarms?

Have you ever noticed how rough your underarms can be?

Have you ever noticed any underarm decoloration?

Do you ever experience soreness or itchiness on your underarms?

Can you recall any times when you’ve been embarrassed by your underarms?

Followed up with an innocent, “Do you think your underarms are unattractive?” Clearly, the responses would be more than a little skewed.

It’s like asking, “Do you think Senator Jones is lying about having an affair?,” “Do you agree with Senator Jones’s decision to defund the troops, possibly leaving them without body armor?,” and “Do you think Senator Jones’s health care vote was the result of bribery, as some have suggested?”—and then asking, “Do you approve or disapprove of the job Senator Jones is doing?”

 In closing (for now)

I'll have much more on this in a fuller blog post about Dove, including an explanation of the inherent inconsistency of Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty and why I believe its campaign for its Go Sleeveless Deodorant is embarrassingly hypocritical. (I'm holding off posting that in part to give time for Dove to provide a statement and, hopefully, the full poll; a rep at Dove's PR firm said they'd have something by today.)

In the meantime, it's important to note that Dove is far from the only company to conduct dubious polls, cite the results in its marketing materials, and then balk that the notion of releasing the full questionnaire and results.

For instance, last year, FedEx attempted to smear UPS with its "Brown Bailout" campaign, in which FedEx falsely accused UPS of asking for a government bailout. FedEx cited polls on its website and in its press releases claiming public support for FedEx's position, and FedEx director of corporate communication Maury Lane mentioned polls when he was interviewed about the issue. (He did so during his interview with me, too.)

So I asked to see the full questionnaire and results. Lane told me that I would have to get it from FedEx's pollster, Public Opinion Strategies. Public Opinion Strategies said that they weren't authorized to release that information, and only FedEx could release it. When I emailed and left messages with Lane relaying what the pollster told me, Lane stopped returning my calls and emails.

This may be obvious, but it's a good idea to be suspicious of any poll a company conducts and then cites in marketing materials. Companies don't do polls because they're just so darn curious about people; they do polls because it helps them somehow -- maybe to have snappy soundbites in interviews, or to make press releases sound more authoritative, or, in what I believe is Dove's case, to attempt to preemptively fend off criticism.

Regardless, whenever companies offer poll results in a marketing campaign, customers and (especially) journalists should get into the habit of automatically asking for the full questionnaire and the full results. And if a company refuses to do so, we should get into the habit of telling them that they are being dishonest and very likely lying by omission.

There's only one reason a company would feel comfortable releasing only some but not all of a poll's results: they are hiding something. That's not breaking news, but it's good to remember.

You can email me at, or tweet me @JoeDellosa.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hallmark’s V-Day slogan “I Love Us” was totally copied from (500) Days of Summer

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

Developing story: Hallmark's Valentine's Day slogan, "I love us," appears to have been copied from the film (500) Days of Summer -- in fact, in the film, it's used by a greeting card writer in the context of writing greeting cards. Is it a coincidence or plagiarism?

Update on February 4, 2011 at 4:52 p.m.: Hallmark said via its Twitter account that Leo Burnett, the company's agency of record, is responsible for the "I love us" commercial. I've updated the story to reflect this.
The folks at Hallmark have unveiled their cute little slogan for this year's Valentine's Day: "Valentine's Day is for saying 'I love us.'" Here's their 2011 Valentine's Day commercial, which, according to a tweet from @HallmarkPR sent to me after I asked, was produced by the company's agency of record, the Chicago-based Leo Burnett:

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

As the voiceover says:

Valentine's Day is not for saying "I love you." It's for saying, "I love us." I love who we are together, how we've grown -- from our nervous conversations to the one we two have become. Valentine's Day is for taking the time to say, "I love us."

And here's a screenshot of their Valentine's Day promotional webpage:

Adorable stuff! Or, at least, it would be if Valentine's Day hadn't become a crassly artificial holiday that seeks to commodify our emotions and homogenize the way we express our love as a means to boost corporate profits, while fomenting awkward, hurtful feelings among couples and mopey misery among singles. (Why, yes, I am single this Valentine's Day, how'd you know?)

Anyway, I'll save my rantings about why Valentine's Day is Evil and Ruins Everything for another day, but for now, I'll say this about Hallmark's "I love us" campaign -- they totally stole that line from the movie (500) Days of Summer. Check out this screenshot from the movie:

(500) Days of Summer documents the failed relationship -- from start to finish, though not in that order -- between Tom Hansen (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (played by Zooey Deschanel). Tom's a hopeless romantic, Summer's a cynic about love, and they meet at the office where Tom works as a greeting card writer. Hijinks ensue (and by "hijinks," I mean "95 minutes of brutal relationship honesty").

About a quarter into those 500 days, when Tom and Summer's relationship is going swimmingly, Tom is filled with such giddy euphoria about Summer that he becomes a font of greeting card creativity. One of those bursts of creativity that's met with delight from his co-workers? "I love us."

Can't see the video? Click here to watch it on YouTube.
If the YouTube link isn't working, click here to watch it on Bing.

Okay, admittedly, "I love us" isn't exceptionally unique, and it's certainly possible that the ad team behind the slogan didn't pilfer it from the movie. But, c'mon -- (500) Days of Summer is an extremely well-regarded movie about a greeting card writer, and presumably, "folks who work for a sentimental greeting card company" is as about a perfect target audience for the film as I can imagine. I find it very, very hard to believe that nobody thought, "Hey, wait! 'I love us' and greeting cards -- sounds familiar!"

For what it's worth, if you Google search "I love us," a reference to the clip linked above is the third result.

And if anybody on the ad team had bothered to begin typing "I love us" into Google, they'd see Google eagerly suggesting (500) Days of Summer:

I should note that I'm far from the only person to make the (500) Days of Summer connection; searching for "hallmark 500" or "hallmark summer" on Twitter offers dozens of tweets using words like stole, rip-off, unoriginal, and swag jacker.

And as far as I can tell from searching, the first person to make the connection on Twitter was @createajess on Jan. 31. @aaronwill also said the campaign was "very original" #sarcastically on Jan. 31, but it's not clear if he was just saying so because of the movie or just in general.

Anyway, with real news happening, it's more amusing than scandalous, although Leo Burnett probably ought to be at least a little embarrassed that their creative integrity is being thrown into doubt with such a high-profile campaign. And besides, if Leo Burnett -- on behalf of a company like Hallmark whose name is often used pejoratively to refer to shallow, commercialized sentimentalism -- wants to steal from a movie, there are few better films from which to do so than a movie as honest and real as this one.

I sent an email to Hallmark through its media inquiry form asking for comment, but I haven't received a response yet. To the credit of whoever operates Hallmark's Twitter account, I received a reply a mere seven minutes after asking them via Twitter what ad agency did their commercial.

You can email me at or tweet me @JoeDellosa. And yes, this might be a sign that I've seen this movie way too many times.

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.)