Showing posts with label work and labor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label work and labor. Show all posts

Monday, October 19, 2015

A people’s history of 88 Advertising (a.k.a. the true origin of the legendary Doc Marsh)

This is Doc Marsh.

He’s a sandhill crane that somehow graduated from medical school (I know, makes me wonder what I’m doing with my life, too) and is now a physician at Marshfield Clinic, a network of hospitals and clinics in Wisconsin.

Doc Marsh is too modest to say so himself, but he’s a pretty big deal. I don’t mean to drop any names, but check out the good doctor hanging out with none other than rock star Eau Claire School Board At-Large—and in Charge—Commissioner Joe Luginbill, a.k.a. the bad boy of the City of Eau Claire Utility Appeals Board.

Yeah, the Joe Luginbill. That ain’t no Photoshop, yo.

The reason I know that Doc Marsh wouldn’t be a shameless namedropper is because, contrary to his origin story on the Marshfield Clinic website, Doc Marsh wasn’t created by Marshfield Clinic. Rather, this alumnus of the Avian School of Medicine was the product of the finest ragtag group of advertising professionals with whom I’ve had the privilege to work: 88 Advertising.

Truth be told, I hadn’t thought about Doc Marsh or 88 Advertising in years. But back to school week—with all these commercials for school supplies and dorm gear1—coupled with an unsolicited reminder from Facebook that I’m still an admin for the Doc Marsh fan page we set up has made me nostalgic for the halcyon days of senior spring semester. This nostalgia has, in turn, provided a stark reminder of my rapidly evaporating youth, the fading sense of limitless possibility, and the ephemerality of all things.

So join me as I work through this via the most effective of quarter-life crisis remedies: a needlessly exhaustive history on a topic with limited, if any, general appeal.

* * *

ADV4800, better known as Advertising Campaigns, is the capstone course in the advertising major at the University of Florida. The premise is simple: the class is divided into several teams (or “agencies”) of about eight students each, and each agency creates and pitches an advertising campaign for a real-life client with a real-life advertising challenge. The agency whose campaign most impresses the client wins.

It’s treated as Very Serious Business. Some advertising majors have described the class as basically having a full-time job; some plan their schedules so that ADV4800 is their only class during their final semester, while others supposedly quit their actual jobs in preparation for the Campaigns workload.

While that may be a bit much, there’s good reason to take the class seriously. If rumors are to be believed, past clients gave the winning agency pretty great prizes: a travel agency purportedly gave free plane tickets to Europe to one winning team several years ago; a brewery gave its winning team a year’s supply of beer. It’s entirely possible that these are apocryphal Campaigns urban legends, but even without fabulous prizes, you get a chance to impress a client and their ad agency, and maybe you can parlay that into an entry-level position fetching crullers and advancing Keynote slides after graduation—which is the greatest prize of all, right?

And make no mistake; the course is structured to be treated as Very Serious Business. To ensure everybody treats the project seriously, agencies have the ability to “fire” underperforming or unpleasant team members via unanimous vote. A fired employee would either have to complete the project from scratch by themselves (close to impossible, and almost certainly an F), find another agency to “hire” them (pretty difficult as well—who would want to risk taking on another team’s rejected riff-raff?), or drop the course and try again next semester (which means delaying graduation).2

* * *

88 Advertising was formed entirely by chance. In this case, “chance” is slang for “Sprint’s spectacularly bad coverage in Gainesville.”

When I was at UF, there were two professors you wanted for Campaigns. Both had well-deserved reputations for being smart, insightful, encouraging, and all-around amazing people. (Basically, they were the Joe Luginbills of advertising professors.) One of them—the professor in my first real advertising class and one of my favorite instructors ever—left UF. It was genuinely upsetting (seriously, he was amazing), but we understood; I suppose there are only so many jorts and flip-flops you can take before wanting a change of scenery.

Luckily, the other professor stuck around, and I snagged the last seat in his class. This would leave me all alone in Campaigns without my three friends from previous group projects, so I repeatedly refreshed the Drop/Add page on my laptop to check if more seats were available for them to join me. It seems thoughtful, until you realize I was asking three other people to rearrange their entire schedule just so that I don’t have to be alone. (Was I a selfish dick in college? I didn’t think so at the time, but in retrospect: maybe?)

Finally, I caught lightning in a bottle: three seats opened up. I texted my three friends immediately (“QUICK 3 SEATS IN CAMPAIGNS RIGHT NOW”); two of them grab seats within minutes; one, I’d learn when it was too late, never got the text. He got stuck in the other Campaigns class, unfortunately.

If he had gotten the text, though, 88 Advertising wouldn’t have existed. Some acquaintances from our previous courses had a group of five and needed exactly three more people to complete their team, and our smaller group of three just happened to be sitting right next to them. Ours was the first team formed.

It’s not exactly clear why we picked “88 Advertising” for our name, but the explanation we settled on was that 88 miles per hour was the speed required for time travel in the Back to the Future films. We set up an official (and immediately-neglected) team Twitter account and, a website that had our logo and a clip of Doc Brown saying, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” (Because we’re such innovative and creative thinkers that we don’t follow predefined paths! And, also, because when we brainstorm, we operate at 1.21 gigawatts! Thankfully, my agency didn’t make unforgivable dorkiness a fireable offense.)

We later found out that some neo-Nazis use the number 88 as a symbol; “H” is the eighth letter of the alphabet, so “88” is “HH,” or “Heil Hitler.” This was obviously distressing, and in our second team meeting, we discussed changing the name. The consensus: well, we’re definitely not neo-Nazis, but we did already buy the domain name, so… yeah.

Also, we arbitrarily decided to become arch-rivals with another agency that called themselves Checkm8te and had a chess motif on their identity materials. As far as I can tell, it was entirely one-sided (though one of our classmates told us on Pitch Day that “the biggest competition is between you guys and Checkm8te,” so maybe we eventually willed a rivalry into existence) and for the stupidest reason: we thought of the idea to have a numerical name first, damn it.

(And also, how are you supposed to pronounce that? If it’s supposed to be like “checkmate,” shouldn’t the name be “Checkm8”? You’d pronounce Checkm8te like “checkmatete.” But I digress.)

* * *

When we discovered that our client would be Marshfield Clinic, we were kind of bummed. No offense to Wisconsin’s finest health care provider or anything, but our dreams of free tickets to Europe or limitless booze evaporated, and in its place… a free checkup, perhaps? Or a coupon for 25 percent off a pap smear or something? Alas, there would be no additional prize for winning beyond the standard $100 bonus—a C-note that, it should be noted, would have to be split eight ways. So basically, $12.50 for each of us was on the line.

But it didn’t matter. Ours was a group of competitive people, and we all wanted to win, even if the prize would be barely enough to cover a meal at Chili’s, excluding tip. That’s not unusual; Campaigns was designed to bring out the fighting spirit in even the most indifferent student. What was unusual was that we somehow adopted a team policy that we were a team powered by love.

To wit, here was a set of informal team principles that we wrote, presumably instead of, y’know, actually working:

For the record, we never delivered a presentation drunk. And man, we didn’t like Checkm8te.

It gets even cutesier. This is an actual excerpt from a draft of our team philosophy:

88 Advertising is a group of eight advertising professionals who are smart, creative, dedicated, and driven. And we pretty much love each other, too.

Dorky? Kind of. Truthful? You bet.

It’s the special kind of love that comes with being around people whom you respect and admire. We all bring something to the table, and we bring out the best in each other. We’re here for each other, and we support each other—even if we’re cringing at each others’ bad jokes, or attempting and failing to give each other high-fives, or scamming free sandals from American Eagle campus reps.

We say, with varying levels of facetiousness, that we’re the most loving team ever. But that’s not just a reflection of our sentimentalism; it’s a reflection of the work we can produce. It’s true that our work is a product of our love, but just as true is that our love is a product of our work: the more we see what we’re capable of, the more we learn about each other’s abilities, and the more time we spend with each other both professionally and personally, the more our affection for each other is affirmed.

Yikes, right?

I remember I had a hand in writing that, and as tongue-in-cheek as that excerpt sounds—especially for us, people who weren’t just “smart, creative, dedicated, and driven” but also at times a bunch of jaded smartasses—I think I was being sincere when I wrote it. It’s not just that I really liked my teammates (that American Eagle aside isn’t a weird joke; we, as a team, scored free footwear from American Eagle by surreptitiously following the campus reps around the Reitz Union North Lawn and pretending to stumble upon the giveaway—seriously, these were my peeps); I wanted to have at least some evidence before graduation that, despite the advertising field’s reputation for being a cutthroat, hypercompetitive, dog-eat-dog field, you could do good work predicated on respect, admiration, and affection for your colleagues.

And we lived up to that: we did become fast friends with each other. We ate lunch and dinner and frozen yogurt together, at first as “on the clock” meetings, but then just because. We’d go out for drinks or sushi, then, because we were adorable, note the trips as “team-building exercises” on our required weekly Agency Activity Reports. (In retrospect, it must’ve looked suspicious to our professor that we had a team meeting… at a bar in midtown… that ended at 3 AM.) We gave each other personal3 and professional advice, talked about our dreams and fears for post-collegiate life, and cheered each other on whenever one of us scored and/or aced a job interview.

* * *

Somewhere along the line, we decided we needed a Marshfield Clinic mascot. We had two criteria for deciding what animal we’d use:

  1. Is the animal native to Wisconsin?
  2. Is it easy to draw the animal wearing a lab coat?

Some furious Wikipediaing later, we decided on the sandhill crane. There was some concern over whether the sandhill crane is unique enough to Wisconsin—they’re all over the country, so these birds are native to Wisconsin in the same way a housecat is native to Florida—but then we saw how easy it was to draw a crane in a lab coat, so that pretty much sealed the deal. As a placeholder, we called our creation “Doctor Marshie” and made mental notes to come up with a better name ASAP. I assume at some point we were all just, eh, whatever, let’s just chop off two syllables and call it done.

We did some rough concept art, but then hired one of our roommates to clean up our sketches. (88 Advertising’s accounts payable records show that payment was rendered in full in the form of Pabst Blue Ribbon.) This was the first official graven image of Doc Marsh:

There exists an image of a maniacal, knife-wielding Doc Marsh that was included in the art we received. We declined to use it.

My proudest contribution was some truly heinous Doc Marsh puns on the Doc Marsh Facebook page:

Also of note: we ordered a sandhill crane stuffed animal to be a sort of Doc Marsh avatar that ultimately served no real purpose in our presentation besides lookin’ cute (which I thought was supposed to be my job, amirite ladies?) and was really more expensive than it should’ve been. And we temporarily “adopted” a sandhill crane named Chevor at the Wildwood Zoo in Marshfield, Wisconsin. We got a bio sheet and photo and everything!

I put “adopted” in scare quotes because none of us remember actually sending the zoo a check; we remember contacting them for more information, and then the adoption certificate arrived. So there’s a chance we screwed the Wildwood Zoo out of $35, which, if so: we apologize. But if it’s any consolation, we probably used the $35 for team-building exercises.

* * *

This story ends the way you think it does. 88 Advertising’s pitch was selected by Marshfield Clinic as the best creative pitch (two other agencies, which our old Twitter account tells me were called +Moxie and Lighthouse, shared the prize for best strategic pitch), and we each collected a sweet $12.50, which was indeed enough to cover a dinner at Chili’s.

That receipt was real, by the way, and happened entirely by chance.

At graduation, we all sat together, and each of us put an 88 Advertising logo on our caps. It sounds impossibly lame when I say it, but it’s true and I’m going to say it anyway: we spent our final moments as undergrads together. And we spent them chanting “88,” probably to the eyerolls of anybody within earshot who knew who we were.

Sometime between then and now, Marshfield Clinic actually made Doc Marsh a real thing—although they made him look younger and less fat, which, ugh, typical youth-obsessed, body-shaming advertising. Make no mistake; our industry is evil, and not even highly-educated, fictitious birds are safe.

Also, can we all get free Doc Marsh plushies or something? Because suddenly our $12.50 seems somehow inadequate.

* * *

The easy takeaway from my 88 Advertising experience is some clich├ęd notion about the importance of having coworkers you like and about whom you care deeply. That’s true enough: many people spend as much as half (or more!) of their waking life at work with their colleagues, and the people at work become an imaginary family of sorts. If you’re indifferent to your coworkers, work tends to be boring; if you hate your coworkers, work tends to be miserable; if you love your coworkers, that love can imbue the most meaningless of tasks with a sense of mission and purpose.

Ostensibly, that’s what happened here. There’s no real reason for any of us to care about a chain of medical practices in Wisconsin; even if, inexplicably, Marshfield Clinic and/or its advertising agency were so impressed by our work that they offered us jobs, it’s doubtful any of us would’ve moved to Wisconsin to take it. Yet, we cared—a lot.

Some of it was just natural competitiveness and a desire to end our time at UF on a high note, to be sure. But a lot of it was the joy that came from creating a community that could depend on each other and the mild high that comes from growing closer by having a shared vision. In retrospect, it’s remarkable how much we jelled; I don’t recall a single fight or argument or even a cross word, even during the most stressful times. (I remember the opposite, actually; when we were close to a project milestone, we’d send emails and texts asking each other what we could do to make each other’s lives easier, because we were fuckin’ adorbs.)

But that would be a lame takeaway. The truth is, for all the hype about how Campaigns recreates what things will be like in the real world, the course hasn’t resembled my lived reality of what real-world work life is like. Campaigns creates a situation in which everybody has the same goal, and your team members have every incentive to trust and be trusted, to do good work, and to be there for each other. In the real world, your coworkers are often incentivized to sabotage, backstab, and create the illusion of working hard without necessarily doing so, all to get their promotion or their raise. Hell, I’ve worked in low-stakes workplaces, and this still exists when there’s nothing of real value to be gained—people will act shittily just to get the slightly nicer cubicle or a raise that amounts to 55 cents an hour or the right to the kitty cat Post-it dispenser4.

* * *

When I think back to 88 Advertising, I think of this: By senior year, and especially by senior spring semester, I had all but completely stopped making an effort to meet new people—it’s the last few months of college, so what’s the point? It’s going to be tough enough to hang on to your friends that you’ve known since freshman year post-graduation—time, geography, and the pressures of becoming an adult in a then-bleak economy all have a way of reducing even the strongest of connections to a tenuous, occasional-text-or-Facebook-message dynamic—that relationships that gestate during the nine months of senior year will wind up stillborn by the time you start moving out of your college apartment.

Even at the apex of the 88 Advertising lovefest, I still wasn’t Pollyanna about these realities. I remember thinking more than a few times how much it sucked that, in all likelihood, these connections are going to be temporary. And, of course, for the most part, they were: of my seven 88 Advertising colleagues, I’ve talked to exactly two of them in the past three years. And while that’s disappointing to think about—when I mentally counted the years just now, I audibly said oh damn to myself—that seems about right.

Senior year was my favorite year of college, and it was in part thanks to 88 Advertising5. Having this group of people, even temporarily, to accompany me through my final months of college and act at times as a support group, cheering section, and collective confidant played a role in turning what could’ve been a terrifying and nauseating transitional time into probably the time I felt happiest and most at peace and, if not necessarily fearless about the future, then kind of scared-but-excited about it.

So that’s my real takeaway from—and the legacy of—88 Advertising: that impermanent connections have value, and just because something is temporary doesn’t mean it doesn’t have meaning. And that’s heady stuff for what is essentially just a study group for a class project, but hey: transitional times have a way of filling normally insignificant things with more meaning than they should have. These people were pretty great, and I’m glad I got to know them, even if it was just for a little bit.

Or, at least, that was my takeaway, until it turned out that Doc Marsh became a real thing. That’s a much less bittersweet legacy for 88 Advertising, so I’m happy to go with that instead.

* * *

Oh, and also, we learned that “Use Twitter!” will not be well-received as an answer to, “How can Marshfield Clinic reach out to the Amish community?”

I can’t confirm that 88 Advertising had anything to do with @MarshfieldAmish. But I can confirm that @MarshfieldAmish definitely got suspended. I regret nothing.

1I started writing this back in September. I decided to finish it after I wished one of my 88 Advertising colleagues a happy birthday and he expressed interest in reading it (and to make sure it was completed before Marty McFly Goes to the Future Day).

2I’ve always been fascinated by this aspect of Campaigns. Wouldn’t it be crazy strategy if someone joins an agency with the intention of being a mole for another agency? The mole steals all of the team’s work, then acts like an ass to get fired, then gets hired by the agency he was working for all along. It’s an amazing bit of chicanery—especially if the agency who’s supposed to hire the mole double-crosses him and declines to hire him in the end.

3I remember one of my teammates was going through a breakup, and I used my column in the campus newspaper to try to cheer her up, resulting in an article describing all the reasons why a breakup can be a good thing right there in the editorial pages. And although, yes, I totally had a crush on her, I’d like to point out my super awesome restraint in not asking her out on a date, because I figured either she’d say no OR she’d say yes and my awkward-ass self would have, probabilistically speaking, found a way to make the date go terribly, and either way, I didn’t want to risk making her feel uncomfortable having to work with either the Dude She Turned Down or the Dude With Whom She Went On A Shitty Date for an entire semester. Also, I thought she was really smart and pretty and I got a case of the cowardice. Really, either explanation works.6
4Just kidding—I got that kitty cat Post-it dispenser thanks to an awesome coworker, so that’s actually a bad example. But my general point stands.

5It was also thanks in huge part to my amazing senior year roommate, but this essay isn’t about him, and we don’t really get effusive about each other ever since we got dinner at a Cheesecake Factory and a well-meaning waitress thought we were a couple and started earnestly suggesting post-dinner date ideas for us. It’s my bad—I had a mustache at the time, so I can see how she could’ve gotten confused.
6Probably more the coward thing. Hey, she was so cool and so cute and I got a little intimidated. It happens. Don’t judge me.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Is it okay to ask out your waiter/waitress?

So you’re at a restaurant with a friend. At some point in the evening, perhaps in a lull in conversation between the removal of the plates formerly containing the rings of onion but before the presentation of the back ribs of baby, your friend leans over, gestures across the restaurant towards your server, and asks: “Pretty cute, right?”

And of course, your server is pretty cute. Plenty cute, in fact. And they seem really nice and sweet and charming. Even though you react in horror when your friend offers to exclaim, “MY BUDDY THINKS YOU’RE CUTE” when your server returns, a question flits across your mind: Is it okay to ask them out?

POINT: No, it’s not okay under any circumstances

Oh, you think your server’s cute? Congratulations—so did virtually everyone else they waited on today, and they’ve already had to deal with a barrage of unsolicited comments on their physical appearance, invasive questions about their personal life, high-larious innuendo-laden jokes pilfered from decade-old episodes of Entourage, and propositions beginning with the phrase, “What time do you get off… from work?” So why do you want to be a part of that?

The harsh reality is this: the basis of asking someone out is to explore a connection that you’ve made with them, and you probably didn’t make a connection with your server. The reason they seemed so sweet and charming? The reason they’re laughing at your jokes? The reason they’re not just saying hey, fuck off when you’re being all flirty with them? They want a good tip. Or, at least, they don’t want you to call over the manager and complain about how rude they were.

Because we insist on allowing the wildly outmoded system of tipping to be a thing, there’s an absurd asymmetry of power in the server-customer relationship that’s already fraught with tension. Don’t make it worse by making them worry that you’ll punish them with a shitty tip if they reject your advances or are otherwise insufficiently ego-stroking.

Look, there are plenty of wonderful, attractive people on whom you can hit who aren’t at work and aren’t just trying to get through their shift. Be considerate; don’t hit on people whose ability to make rent requires them to be a captive audience to you.

COUNTERPOINT: Yes, it’s okay as long as you’re polite

Let’s not exaggerate what we’re talking about here: it’s just a polite invitation to coffee at the end of your meal. If your server is old enough to have a job, your server is old enough to deal with this basic, mundane social interaction without it ruining their day.

That’s not to say that some customers can’t be total pieces of shit about it, and there’s no excuse for that. But it does no one any good to define “inconsiderate” down to such an extent that considerate people start to internalize the idea that merely asking someone out is an untenable imposition. Asking someone out at their work is less than ideal, to be sure, but it’s hardly a sin.

Let’s be real: plenty of people have gone on dates with their servers.  It could be that your server is just being friendly and gunning for a tip, but maybe they actually like you and think you’re cute. Both are possibilities, but why assume when you can know for sure? It’s not like your server is really in a position to ask you out.

Here’s the bottom line: Your server is an adult (…seriously, they are, right?). They should be able to handle a polite date request. Ours is a society where people are generally expected to find love and be in relationships, and that means sometimes people will ask other people out. Nobody should have to deal with assholes, of course, but polite invitations to coffee? That’s just a part of living in a world with other human beings.

* * *

If you’re going to ask your server out anyway

Be polite. Don’t be cocky, gross, creepy, or sexual—they’ve already likely heard all of that shit, and there’s a good chance they’ve already heard it earlier that day. (“But this one time my buddy Gizmo told this joke about titties and totally hooked up with our server!” Yeah, I know, some people inexplicably reward being a creep; it doesn’t make it okay to be creepy.)

Don’t monopolize their time. It’s understandable to want to build a rapport with your server so that you don’t seem like just another customer. Sometimes it works. But most of the time, you’re just making them squirm because they’ve got work to do and they don’t know how to extricate themselves from customers who are transparently hitting on them. If anything, take their lead: if they don’t seem chatty after you ask them how their day is going or what appetizer they recommend, don’t push it.

Ask them out after you’ve tipped. You can at least remove the “Is this going to adversely affect my tip?” aspect of the situation from the equation. Also: tip well (it varies, but it’s normally around 20 to 25 percent for dinner or brunch; 25 to 30 percent for a weekday lunch), but not absurdly well—it could be construed as trying to purchase a date with them.

Don’t be loud or ostentatious about it. In particular, don’t let other tables or their coworkers hear—being asked out in front of an audience is really uncomfortable. Plus, it sucks to be embarrassed in front of coworkers; they have to see those jerks every day, you know.

Take no for an answer. Understand that, because of the aforementioned asymmetry in the server-customer dynamic, your server may find a way to turn you down that sounds friendly, playful, or equivocal. If you don’t get an unmistakable “yes,” then you should take it as a “no.” Make sure you signal that you fully accept and understand it’s a “no” so that your server doesn’t think you’re a creep who will, like, follow them into the parking lot or whatever.

Consider asking them out with a note. It’s more passive and middle-schoolie than most people are comfortable with, but it’s actually a particularly considerate way to ask out your server: it avoids an awkward conversation, it’s private and audience-less, and if they’re not interested, they can easily turn you down with a pocket veto. Many—though, it should be noted, not all—people would appreciate that sort of thoughtfulness. (If you do this, you should probably assume that they’re not going to call instead of, say, constantly checking your phone. If you know you’re the type who will constantly check your phone, seriously: don’t do this.)

Use common sense. You’re 45, and your server looks like they’re taking an extra shift to pay for senior prom? Come on now.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

“Plunging vertically, lightly clinking / It won’t attract anyone’s attention”

Congratulations to Apple! The company just posted the biggest quarterly profit—$18 billion—in world history.

To commemorate the achievement, here's a poem written by former Foxconn factory worker Xu Lizhi, published in the Foxconn employee newspaper.

A screw fell to the ground
In this dark night of overtime
Plunging vertically, lightly clinking
It won’t attract anyone’s attention
Just like last time
On a night like this
When someone plunged to the ground

He's a former employee because he, like many of his fellow Foxconn employees, killed himself last year after working under Foxconn's harsh and sometimes inhumane labor conditions in Shenzhen. He was 24.

While we're at it, we can also reread the New York Times's blockbuster 2012 story about Foxconn and the Apple supply chain that we all swore would make us give a shit, but then Apple came out with candy-colored iPhones the next year and we all totally wanted one. (Mine's yellow!)

It's cool, though, because that one dude who was on This American Life turned out to be a liar, which was just the perfect opportunity to stop caring.

So again—congrats, Apple!

Posted via the Blogger iOS app

Yes, Apple is far from the only company that uses Foxconn. But now that Apple is, for the moment, officially the most profitable company on the planet, it highlights how much could be done but isn't, and how few people genuinely care. (And since caring should only be measured by one's actions rather than feelings, I'm ashamed to say that I easily fall into the "don't care" camp.) And for all the talk about how Apple's $18 billion was built on good old-fashioned American innovation and gumption, it's worth remembering that it was also built on the despair and misery and sometimes deaths of Chinese laborers with few—or no—other options.

And while blame can be parceled out to Foxconn for perpetrating labor abuses and the Chinese government for turning a blind eye to such abuses, Apple and its customers deserve much of it, too. There's almost no demand for a bloodless iPhone, especially if it means paying more for it. And again, virtually every smartphone and tablet seller uses Foxconn or a Foxconn-esque supplier, but $18 billion means that Apple is in a uniquely powerful position to do something about it if they really wanted to. Or, as a former Apple executive put it in that New York Times article:
“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

AXA’s fascinatingly bad TV commercials: ruminations on gender, fate, and love

Come with me as I way overanalyze a pair of insurance and retirement commercials!

* * *

Here’s a TV commercial for AXA, an insurance and financial services firm, that’s pretty lame, but benignly so.

A man at an airport so absorbed with the Financial Services Fearmongering app on his tablet that he doesn’t even notice a fellow businessman who sat down next to him, leaning over with a big, expectant grin. They have the same tie, and the businessman wants to make small talk!

But alas, he’s so consumed with the “LIFE INSURANCE: Do you have enough?” question that he ignores the businessman. The businessman is so disappointed and so frustrated at this failed attempt at human connection that, a mere ten seconds after sitting down, he dashes off to find another seat—because, you know, screw you for not noticing me even though I didn’t even say “excuse me” and can clearly see you’re engrossed in something. An on-screen graphic delivers the devastating news: “That was a $40 million dollar deal.”

To emphasize how big of a missed opportunity this was, they redundantly include the word “dollar” in the graphic—that was a forty million dollar dollar deal, damn it.

The voiceover brings it all together: “We all think about life insurance. But when we start worrying about tomorrow, we miss out on the things that matter today. At AXA, we offer advice and help you break down your insurance goals into small, manageable steps, because when you plan for tomorrow, it helps you live for today.”

And indeed, we’re shown that in the alternate universe where the man saw an AXA advisor, he would’ve (1) been so worry-free that he doesn’t even wear ties, yo; and (2) noticed that he and the businessman have matching socks, with all the smiling and chuckling and surprised finger-pointing that that entails.

And boom—40 million double dollars, here we come!

* * *

Here’s the other AXA TV commercial in this campaign, which is lamer still.

A woman sitting in a coffee shop is reading the legacy media version of the Financial Services Fearmongering app (“RETIREMENT: Will your savings last?”) while a sketchy-looking dude is drawing a picture of her1. Sadly, she leaves the coffee shop without even noticing him, which is a tragedy, because—“That was her soulmate.”

Look at his face there: “I tried everything—creepily staring at her from afar, surreptitiously drawing a picture of her—and nothing worked! Ugh, women today can’t appreciate a nice guy.”

A voiceover once again offers an explanation for what we just witnessed: “We all have to plan for retirement. But when we start worrying about tomorrow, we miss out on what matters today.” And had the woman seen an AXA advisor who would have helped her live for today, we see that she and the dude would’ve spent so much time at the coffee shop that the lights are off and everybody—including the staff—is gone. And then off-camera they presumably rob the coffee shop to finance his career as a sub-mediocre sketch artist.

* * *

The obvious critique is a feminist one: when AXA wants to talk to men about missed opportunities, it’s about financial deals; when AXA wants to talk to women, it’s about soulmates and true love. And it’s a fair enough critique; women are actively engaged in business and have concerns that extend beyond finding Prince Charming, and these two commercials juxtaposed against each other suggest that AXA doesn’t look at its potential female clients as serious-minded about finances. (Although, to be fair, the man in the life insurance spot does meet with a female AXA advisor, so there’s that.)

What’s kind of neat about these ads is that, somehow, AXA (or, more specifically, its ad agency) found a way to construct a pair of possibly mildly sexist ads that somehow become worse if they’re gender-swapped.

Let’s say it were two businesswomen at the airport with matching scarves. One woman tries and fails to get the other’s attention and, afterward, huffily finds another seat as the “That was a $40 million dollar deal” graphic appears. I can see myself offering two critiques: Is AXA trying to say that women are so shallow that they’d base a $40 million deal on clothes? Is AXA trying to say that women are so sensitive that they’d get upset because they couldn’t get someone’s attention after only a few seconds?

And if it were a man who narrowly missed his supposed female sketch-artist soulmate, complete with a “That was his soulmate” graphic, it’d look objectifying—as though a woman is comparable to a business deal, just another thing to win or acquire.

A better fix would be to simply switch the graphics—the woman at the coffee shop missed a $40 million deal, and the man at the airport missed his tie-and-sock sharing soulmate. Because, seriously, look at their eyes.

The only business deal that went down that night is a horizontal merger, if you know what I mean2.

* * *

On the other hand, is it even really sexist? Everybody talks about how we need to find a proper work-life balance and how your job shouldn’t be the totality of who you are. And most people will likely agree that love and family is more important than work and business. So isn’t AXA showing that the woman (who’s concerned with finding someone to love) has better priorities than the man (who’s concerned with a business deal)? Isn’t the ad really sexist against men who don’t understand what really matters in life?

Maybe! But probably not.

Obviously, women have historically had a much tougher time being taken seriously in business and money matters, so, even if we’re being extremely charitable with AXA’s intent, it still isn’t helpful in knocking down some stereotypes. And in matters of love and family, it’s generally been women who scale back on—or entirely give up—their careers and business lives, and these AXA commercials subtly reinforce that cultural norm.

A less comfortable possibility: Maybe we really don’t think love and family is more important than work and business. Think about how much time we spend at work, or thinking about work, or trying to find better, more lucrative work. It’s probably more time than we spend on “love,” right? And hey, I’m not judging—who are any of us to say that anybody’s priorities are better than the other?

* * *

But really, what’s most fascinating about these otherwise unremarkable ads is how they play with the notion of fate: If you’re not in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, and in exactly the right mood, you might miss out on a business deal! Or a soulmate!

And I know it’s just a silly pair of ads, but that’s kind of a pernicious mind-virus with which to infect your audience, because that way madness lies. Literally everything is the product of such a precise set of circumstances that it can be brain-bending to think about it too hard—if I left work a few moments earlier, I wouldn’t have gotten into that car accident; if I hadn’t stopped to get a cup of water from the water cooler before leaving, I wouldn’t have left work those few moments later; if I hadn’t eaten pretzels as a snack, I wouldn’t have been thirsty for water; if I had enough change for Oreos, I wouldn’t have gotten pretzels from the vending machine; if I hadn’t given some of my change to that homeless guy on the corner, I would’ve had enough change for Oreos. ERGO, I AM NEVER GIVING MONEY TO HOMELESS PEOPLE EVER AGAIN.

Of course, that’s ridiculous to conclude. And imagine if, say, you were planning on stopping by a convenience store on your way home, which, obviously, you don’t because of the car accident. And let’s say that that convenience store was robbed by a violent gunman3 who shot and killed everybody in the store—what then? Did your car accident save your life? Do you eat more pretzels now? Do you give more money to homeless people?

So it’s strange for AXA to make a pitch of, “Use our services to make sure that a precise set of mostly uncontrollable circumstances align properly so you don’t miss out on something!” I doubt anybody would take these ads quite that seriously, but still, it’s kind of a mean-spirited albeit metaphysical fear-based appeal. (Plus, using the ad’s own logic: who’s to say that, by talking to $40 million deal guy, you missed a chance to talk to some other dude who had, like, a matching suitcase who would’ve given you an $80 million deal? What then, AXA?)

* * *

And finally—“soulmate”? Really?

This is neither here nor there, but I think the idea of a soulmate—or The One, or your lobster, or whatever—is depressing. There are a lot of people on the planet, after all, and if there’s only one soulmate out there for each of us, then guys—we’re probabilistically screwed. Our soulmates might not be on the same continent. They might not be born yet, or they might have just died.

Or what if, by some odds-defying stroke of luck, your soulmate happens to be in the same city as you are and you just happen to be on the same bus, but they’re busy on their phone. Or they’re in a bad mood. Or they just got into a relationship, or just got out of one so they’re not ready to date. Or maybe they’re just too preoccupied planning for retirement. What then?

A belief in soulmates is either a belief in abject despair, or it’s a belief that the universe loves us so much that it’ll bend the laws of statistics and probability to accommodate our hearts’ desires. And honestly, I don’t think the universe even really likes us as just friends.

Plus, believing in soulmates can be kind of dangerous, especially if you genuinely believe you’ve met yours. After all, it’s harder to get out of a relationship—even a toxic one—if you believe that your partner is your one and only. And “soulmates” talk often ignores the effort that goes into successful relationships in favor of an assumption that everything will just fall into place.

So basically, BOO AXA FOR PROMOTING UNREALISTIC NOTIONS OF LOVE. And also, for making me put in way more thought into your commercials than I’m guessing anybody involved with making them did.

1See what I did there? It’s funny because he’s sketching a picture of her, and it looks like he’s been sketchily digging through her garbage to find her old pantyhose. I’m kind of an expert at puns, you see.


3Or gunwoman! I just talked a big game about possible sexism, and here I am, assuming ladyfolk can’t be robbers. Shame on me.

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.)