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The Art of the Apology Ad

Our critic scans the latest from BP, Toyota, GM, and Domino’s to see who grovels best.

Let’s say you’re a huge corporation that’s just spilled oil all over the Gulf of Mexico, or a car company dealing with brakes that don’t brake, or a fast-food chain seeking distance from snot-flinging employees or your own inedible pizza. What’s the best way to say you’re sorry? 

The somber, full-page newspaper ad was once the obvious venue for corporate apologies. Slate-grey and stuffed with type, it functioned like a tombstone for scandal: “We erred, we apologize, and now let’s lay this whole thing to rest.”
Now, though, the repentant company must be ready with a heart-tugging (and YouTube-friendly) TV ad. Why? Well, the TV ad offers many more emotional levers to its maker—soaring music, solemn voiceovers, and, let's face it, you can’t put a sunrise in a newspaper. But the TV ad also presents a number of difficult critical choices. Just what kind of soaring music? Time-elapsed sunrise or slo-mo time-elapsed sunrise? And what overall tone should you strive to strike: Abject groveling? Sleeves-rolled resolve? Chuckling insouciance?
As such, corporate apology ads have fast become a genre unto themselves, and as with any genre, some are good and some are bad. All of these ads strive to say “I’m sorry.” But some are more sorry than others.

BP: “A Message from Tony Hayward” (2010)
The apology: “To those affected, and your families, I’m deeply sorry.”
The pledge: “We’ll get this done. We’ll make this right.”
Effectiveness: In its first ad since the rig explosion, BP decided to go music-less, opting instead for a soundtrack of bleating seagulls and ambient maritime noise, perhaps to suggest to the viewer, “See? There’s plenty of that stuff still around.” The spot is narrated by BP’s CEO Tony Hayward, which is its first and fatal mistake. Hayward is—how do we say this delicately?—British, and the spot has a cold, detached quality, as though he is lecturing us on a topic he’s only just brushed up on. Hayward points out that “the Gulf is home to thousands of BP employees and we all feel the impact,” but the ad spotlights no such workers, using them instead as background filler. It wasn't until subsequent ads, such as one that featured actual Gulf Coaster Darryl Willis, that BP wised up to this obvious mistake. Which is a shame for BP, since Willis, unlike Hayward, comes across as a sympathetic person—not exactly a telegenic orator, but at least someone who doesn’t sound as if he’s running late for a yacht race.
Grade: C. Through this whole debacle, Tony "I'd Like My Life Back" Hayward has been more Bond villain than empathic healer, and seeing him here only makes you want to stuff an oil-choked pelican down his throat.

Toyota: “Commitment” (2010)
The apology: “In recent days, our company hasn’t been living up to the standards that you’ve come to expect from us. Or that we expect from ourselves.”

The pledge: Toyota is “working around the clock to restore your faith in our company.”
Effectiveness: Like a slick boyfriend, the commercial never comes right out and apologizes, instead going with the “we’re sorry that you’re sorry” approach. And unlike U.S. car companies, Toyota is playing against a sterling reputation, not a terrible one, so the spot is designed to remind you of all those great times you’ve had together. To that end, the spirit is one of can-do optimism, complete with tinkly piano and sepia-toned nostalgia shots of dealerships past. Hyper-efficient robots and smiling workers work together to make those Toyotas you’ve always loved. Tellingly, the ad begins and ends with the exact same image of a young couple shaking hands with a salesman. See? It’s like none of this ever happened! One small quibble: The spot is almost exclusively peopled by American employees (one blurry man in the background of a meeting might be Japanese), presumably because Americans like to see their cars, even the suspect Japanese ones, being built by other Americans. However, this means the subliminal message of the commercial can be read as “Toyota: We Blame the Bumblers Stateside.”
Grade: B+. Your slick boyfriend is very good at giving reassuring hugs. That’s why he’s so slick.

Domino’s: “The Pizza Turnaround” (2009)
The apology: “Most companies hide the criticism they’re getting. We actually faced it head on. … There comes a time when you know you’ve got to make a change.”
The pledge: “We changed everything. The crust. The sauce. The cheese. Now it tastes better.”
Effectiveness: In one of the most widely dissected corporate PR moves in recent memory, Domino’s launched a campaign called “The Pizza Turnaround,” which basically said, “Our pizza sucks. Everyone thinks so.” Actual customers in actual focus groups were shown saying that the pizza tastes like cardboard and is “totally void of flavor.” Then the valiant kitchen staff, suitably chastised, sets out to make things right. But there’s one problem: Shouldn’t they all just be fired? Apparently they’ve been making terrible pizza for years! The spot’s candor is commendable and refreshing—how’s “Now it tastes better” as a tagline—but it’s a gamble that ultimately flops. You come away thinking, “Wow, even the people at Domino’s think Domino’s is bad.” As AdAge pointed out, Ford used to make commercials like this all the time, but the message was, “‘Have you driven a Ford lately?’”—not “‘Did you really drive those Crapmobiles till now?’”
Grade: A in theory. F in practice.

Domino’s: “Domino's President Responds To Prank Video” (2009)
The apology: “Recently we discovered a video of two Domino’s team members who thought their acts would be a funny YouTube hoax. We sincerely apologize for this incident.”
The pledge: “The team members have been dismissed and there are felony warrants out for their arrests. The store has been shut down and sanitized from top to bottom.”
Effectiveness: Not long after the launch of “The Pizza Turnaround,” Domino’s was hit with a PR shit-storm or, more precisely, snot-storm: YouTube videos surfaced of mischievous employees putting bodily refuse of various types in people’s food. This time, the corporate response was more quick and dirty than the slickly produced “Pizza Turnaround” campaign; company president Patrick Doyle simply read a prepared statement in a video apparently recorded in his office. The result is crude, but so is the intended message (not to mention the original offense). This is fire-bucket damage control, with Doyle sounding like a weary, finger-wagging dad who's just come home before the big dinner party to find his wayward teenagers stuffing boogers in the canapes.
Grade: B-. The “stern dad” tact played better to men than women, as evidenced by a 20 point gap between male and female approval ratings. But Doyle could have set his own hair on fire and it would never erase the mental image of that guy farting on a customer's salami sandwich.

GM: “Reinvention” (2009)
The apology: “Let’s be completely honest. No company wants to go through this. … General Motors needs to start over.”
The pledge: “Reinvention is the only way we can fix this. And fix it we will.”
Effectiveness: GM’s 2010 quasi-apology ad, in which CEO Ed Whitacre claimed they’d paid their bailout loans back in full (debatable), has been in the news lately, but this 2009 hand-waving, football-flinging, cowboy-up apology ad is the true surreal masterpiece of the genre. U.S. car companies have become experts in “we’ll do better this time” messaging (see Ford, above), and this ad features the usual go-to gimmicks: guitar crescendos, skylines at sunrise, attractive workers in hardhats looking confident. But as the spot barrels forward, it explores new frontiers of free-form emotional montage. Look, it's Neil Armstrong! And Joe Louis! And Ben Roethlisberger (who now needs an apology ad of his own)! And, um, a guy running on a prosthetic leg! And the Philadelphia Phillies winning the World Series? The commercial's tact is to bombard you with loosely associated, feel-good imagery, much of which has nothing to do with Ford, or cars, but all of which leaves you feeling mildly uplifted about … something. It's like a sneaky series of subliminal images, except that these images aren't subliminal: They're right there on screen. So when the narrator intones, “There was a time when our cost-structure could compete worldwide. Not anymore,” we don’t see factories or cost-structures but a hockey player crumpled face-down on the ice. Get it? The rest of the world is dirty and cheap and nasty with their weird ice-bound sports. But we’re still proud, strong, lean, fast America and we are about to kick some major butt with our bionic leg.
Grade: A. For all its hokiness and heart-tugging, this is the one ad that makes you feel something—even if the feeling is simply a vague and unfocused optimism. It understands that—unlike Tony Hayward's contrite mumbling or Domino's ham-handed self-flagellation—in the world of apology ads, it's better to be shameless than shameful. The perfect apology ad, you see, doesn’t feel the need to say sorry at all.

Adam Sternbergh is an editor-at-large for New York magazine.

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