From a chair in the marketing department, it’s too easy to look only at the world that, well, you can actually see.  The problem is that – while your optics on other parts of the company may be zero – those other zones may be your greatest weakness.  And they’re operating in the webosphere 24/7.

You know, for example, that your company has plants in the Far East or does business with farms, but – unless you’re on this or that executive committee – your true knowledge of the goings on out in the field is extremely low.

Low, that is, until a video hits YouTube and becomes a sensation. That great campaign your team has been lovingly preparing for six months? Forget about it. No one would believe it, and everyone’s in crisis mode, anyway.

Not having a broad handle on your organization’s practices in the farthest reaches of the value chain might have been acceptable 10 years ago, but –  in the age of social media – companies have to be more aware of their soft spots: the activities that are vulnerable to miscommunication, misinterpretation or true mishandling.

How your company handles farmed salmon or trucker hours or car seat testing isn’t in the CMO’s purview, but you better believe that it sits on every marketer’s desk, every day, like a ticking time bomb.

Tick, tick, tick.

There are also plenty of examples where marketers have voluntarily entered the social media jungle, unprepared for the attacks that even a child could have told them might come.

It is smart marketing  – not “negativity” – to have an unblinkingly honest view of your brand and to protect its vulnerabilities. Every brand in the world has ’em. McDonald’s in the US and Waitrose in the UK (hashtags #McDStories and #waitrosereasons, respectively) are both recent examples of powerful brands putting a toddler in front of a Twitter truck and expecting her not to get run over. Maybe she won’t, but do you really want to find out?

Of course, most of the challenges that brands face in social media aren’t new. People have always groused about poor service or “hated” this brand or another. The difference is that now every consumer is one tweet away from telling the universe about it.

Take the case of Progressive Insurance. When New Yorker Matt Fisher’s sister died in a car crash, Fisher wrote a scathing blog post. In one week, Marketwatch claims the company lost 1,000 customers, with another 1,600 saying that they would never do business with the insurer. Plus the news coverage was unbelievable.

Now, was Progressive wrong in this case? I have no idea. Do any of my friends have any personal knowledge of this particular situation? Nope.  But that didn’t stop them from tweeting and retweeting while the story was hot.

NBC News said it best: “the “lessons from [the] Progressive screw up” are that “when it’s Twitter vs. lawyers, take Twitter.”

The insurer settled the Fisher family’s lawsuit within three or four days.

In essence, social media simply amplifies your strengths and weaknesses. It creates a level of transparency that forces advertisers to live by what they say.  Or else.

And by the way, could a consumer just be “out to get” your company and stage some awful stunt that gets picked up worldwide? Yes, and that’s happened. In the meantime, you endure a week of hell, claiming your legitimate innocence, while the brand gets shredded.

So – what to do? Brands need to prepare for and anticipate the downside. A food company may want to think about how its ingredients are selected. A QSR might want to do the same. A shoe or computer company will want to think about its manufacturing policies and whether there are any parties that would relish revealing a damaging factoid.

This is not paranoia and, as I said, it’s not negativism. In my opinion, it’s actually the greatest thing you can do to protect what you care about. Everything’s easy when everything’s good. If the organic material hits the fan, how will you protect your assets and the consumers who believe in you and who need to understand what happened? What message do you want to communicate, and how, when and who will do it?

Don’t wait to figure this out. Sit down in private with your agencies and your leadership and create a plan for what you’ll do when a true or not-true-but-fast-moving event occurs. Know what you’ll do in the short term, and determine whether there would be any possible adjustments to the marketing message or the business overall in the long term.

The truth is that most brands aren’t doing heinous things, but there is a wide gulf between that truth and what actually might happen to you on the Web. Every week, I see a brand looking like a deer in headlights after some goof-up on a social network. When will we get it?

Prepare for what you should assume will be the inevitable. It doesn’t mean it’ll happen, but – if it does and you’re ready – the payoff is the preservation of brand value, your company’s reputation, your employees’ commitment and much more.

The bottom line is that living in a castle and thinking your brand is just fabulous is a mistake. Everyone’s got vulnerabilities. That’s business.

A version of this post was first published HERE by M&M Global.

Anyone remember Mona Shaw?  I wrote about her in March, 2008 after Comcast stepped on her last nerve and she smashed every computer, phone and keyboard within swinging distance at their local office.

She was upset, and understandably so.  It’s worth re-reading the story if you have the time.

Many of the customer service horror stories we hear are characterized by just this kind of anger and accusations of incompetence.  But what if a customer service rep is fantastic, and it’s the brand that falters?

Such was my experience when I called Verizon Wireless to find out why my voicemail wasn’t working.

I sat on hold for two or three minutes, listening to hold messages about new products and services (The iPhone is coming! The iPhone is coming!), before a rep came on the line.  She was a good listener and really got into it.  She tried to reactivate my phone three or four times.  She seemed very competent, so I let her keep trying.  This went on for fifteen minutes.

When she could not solve the problem on her own, she put me on hold while she hunted for someone at the technical help desk.  This time, I was on hold for nearly ten minutes, sitting in total silence.

She then put me on the line with a tech specialist, and stayed with me on the call.  Here’s how that call went:

Tech help desk dude: “Hello, Miss Fierman.  Where are you right now?”

Me: “In New York City.”

Tech help desk dude: “We have a citywide voicemail outage in New York right now.”

Oh.

Wait – WHAT?  I’ve been on the phone for 30 minutes, a customer service rep tied herself in pretzels and Verizon knew about the problem all along? But no worries, said Dude:  it’s been submitted with a “critical” ticket.

Here’s what should be submitted as critical, Ms./Mr. Service Provider: your customers’ time and sanity.   Within a couple hours, voicemail was working once again.

This experience reminded me of a key principle of customer service that seems so hard for many companies to navigate:  We (consumers) don’t need you (product/service provider) to be perfect 100% of the time.  That’s not going to happen.  We’re not perfect and we know you’re not, either.  HOWEVER:  please demonstrate that you can think like a customer by respecting both my time and emotional intelligence.

That’s where Verizon Wireless really fell down on this one, when only one or two small gestures could have made all the difference:

1.  Leverage technology.

a. Use your website. Companies like VW have consumers reasonably well trained to go to their personal home pages on the provider’s site.  While a company may not want to broadcast its failures to the universe, why not give me access to a “Known Issues” list once I’ve logged in?  I’d be one click away from learning that something was happening and when I might expect relief.   No phone call needed.

Assuming that the problem was corrected in an acceptable time frame, this would have been a good customer service experience.

N.B: it’s not always the initial problem that really irritates customers, it’s how a company handles it.

b. Use your VRU.  I occupied the first few minutes of the call listening to hold messages and staring into space.  Had one of these recorded messages mentioned an outage, or if I’d been able to find this information via the phone tree, I would have been satisfied and hung up.  Time Warner Cable offers this feature in New York City, and it’s quite useful.

Ditto the good customer service experience.

c. Use my email address. Why did I give you my email address and opt in for messages if you don’t use it to send me information that is actually important?  A company like VW could use notifications like any airlines and banks do.  And like the airlines and banks, such alerts could be promoted as a customer benefit.

2.  Leverage your team (even if you have to rethink your definition of “team”).

The blowback from this kind of episode reaches far beyond an unnecessary thirty minute call.  A talented customer service didn’t have the information she needed and poured herself into an unsolvable problem.  Then she was embarrassed and apologized when she heard what the tech said (even though I assured her that the situation was not her fault).  This should never happen: there are many ways that a company like VW can communicate with its call centers in real time.  A rep reads a screen, and it’s over.

And how about the tech guy?  He’s taking what I would consider non-technical calls, his queue is endless and he can’t help customers the way he would like.

What do these circumstances do to employee morale?

Will these two employees stay, but harden their attitudes (and complain to fellow employees)?

Will they ultimately talk about their work experiences on the Web?  Could that keep good prospects away?

If you multiply my experience by a thousand or two, will either of them quit, thereby producing more churn, more expense (which VW will pass on via its pricing) and more customer interactions with less-experienced staff?

And so the wheel turns…

Gestures that may seem small can produce mighty ripple effects from one end of a business ecosystem to the other.  As consumer behaviors and habits change, as technology changes, as internal systems change… a company must constantly put itself in the path walked by the customer (and its own staff) in order to discover and address opportunities to make things better.  And the real day-to-day magic isn’t in the big system rewrites or product announcements – it can be in the small adjustments. 

Observe the small things, and the ripple effect might just flow in the opposite direction.

A version of this post was originally published HERE on the Marketing Executives Networking Group’s blog, MENGBlend

Larry King held a 2-hour telethon on June 21 to raise funds for those impacted by the BP oil spill – Disaster in the Gulf: How You Can Help.

Maybe I’m missing something, but… am I the only one who doesn’t understand this?

The spill was caused by a commercial entity that the universe agrees is 100% responsible, the U.S. government has vowed to hold said entity to its promise of paying for the clean-up and for losses incurred by all affected parties, and BP itself has agreed to do same.

Now I’m not saying that BP will or won’t actually do this (or that its version of reimbursement would match yours or mine), but this telethon isn’t saying “We know BP’s 100% responsible, but we don’t believe it’ll come through so we’re doing this just in case” – it’s just your regular old telethon to raise money.

But why? Why are we raising money? Why are television watchers – many of whom cannot afford to donate – being asked to donate in the first place? Larry King said that “the point of this effort is to get immediate relief to the people and wildlife who are in urgent need,” and that “the telethon’s proceeds go directly to relief organizations.” Why isn’t BP being forced to provide “immediate relief?”

I worry that, in a perverse way, this kind of activity makes us immune – numb – to disaster and tragedy. Something happens? No need to look too closely: let’s just raise money. Let’s get a bunch of celebrities to look soulfully into the camera and ask for cash, while we view a dying, oil-blackened bird in split screen. I worry that this makes Americans feel as though we’re doing something – we sent in our $20 bucks, therefore we are good people who care and we can move on.

Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, Mariah Carey and Jeremy Piven take donations at the Gulf telethon

But can we? Are we doing any of the heavy lifting that could actually change anything, or help people? Those impacted by Hurricane Katrina are still suffering and basic infrastructure remains thin in New Orleans: where are we? Where is the outrage about how deepwater drilling continues as we speak, with no specific plan for the industry to create tools that will help it avert and address disasters in the future? Where is the outrage that BP is trying to block journalists’ access to the beaches, or skimmer boats from other countries? Why is it acceptable that individuals appear to be picking up the slack for a global corporation? These should be the items we’re all talking about, not what Justin Bieber has to say over a cheesy soundtrack.

And I worry, too, about the effect on an organization’s sense of responsibility. How does this phenomenon impact a company’s commitment to building trust in the marketplace? If BP’s actions are acceptable – and we make them acceptable by dialing an 800 number flashing on the screen and putting $10 on our credit cards – why wouldn’t a company conclude that it will not be held 100% accountable for its actions? Whether willfully or passively, why wouldn’t an organization do the minimum, or something close to it, and wait for us to blunt or even wash away its responsibility?

It’s easy to pound one’s chest and demand that “those responsible” do more, but I would suggest that, by our own actions, we may be empowering these same responsible parties to do less. There’s no guidebook that tells an organization exactly what reputable and trustworthy behavior is – society does that. Stakeholders – like you, me and Larry King – do that.

Where do you want to set the bar?

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A version of this post also appears on http://reputationgarage.com.

Let’s talk about Audi and the choices it seems to have made regarding its newest advertising work.

Audi USA’s new campaign is based on the “Green Police,” a band of roving law enforcers who try to protect the environment.  “You picked the wrong day to mess with the ecosystem, plastic boy,” says a Green Police enforcer to a clueless grocery shopper in Audi’s Super Bowl ad. “A man has just been arrested… for possession of an incandescent light bulb,” says a reporter.  Here’s the ad:

There are even educational YouTube videos, like this one that tells you how many napkins to take per sandwich.

Hoo-HOO! Hilarious.


But if your brand had a history that was, you know, linked to the largest human massacre of all time, how funny would an ad have to be for you to go ahead anyway?


Audi’s problem is that there’s already one Green Police in history – a Nazi organization associated with the forced labor andphoto-original-green-police1.jpg extermination of millions of innocent people.  Audi is one of the companies that converted its factories to make automobiles and heavy artillery for the Nazis.  Both Audi and Volkswagen have been named in multiple lawsuits filed by Holocaust survivors and their families over the years.

So the social media campaign and the TV ad comes out… and some people are upset.  Others race to defend Audi’s advertising process, e.g. Audi did lots of research prior to launching the campaign, and it showed the ad to Jewish organizations and Holocaust survivors who were not offended.


These comments just reinforce Audi’s deafness.  Did Audi know in advance or not?  Which would be worse?  And as for the defense that the company showed the ad to some Jewish people… there were thousands of people of multiple faiths caught up in what happened during WWII, and there are human beings of all faiths who could be offended by such a reminder.  We are all citizens of the world – and we are all consumers with money to spend on new cars.  And if I’m not in the market for a car, I can assure you that I talk to someone on Facebook or Twitter or at work who is – someone who values my opinion.

This isn’t about religion, it’s about brand.  It’s about judgment.  It’s about customers.

What was the judgment that Audi made here? As PR flak Melanie Lockhart says on her blog, “Lockstep on PR, “Even if you don’t personally think so, from a PR strategy perspective, it doesn’t matter.  As soon as someone takes reasonable exception to anything an organization does (and especially if that someone has an audience), you’ve got a potential issue on your hands.  Can you reasonably predict that a campaign with resonances of the Holocaust will offend people? I think so.”

green-police-logo-design11.pngOthers on the Web haven’t been so charitable.

Audi volunteered for a big kick in the gut. Why – for a social media campaign? To spend $3 million on a single :30 Super Bowl ad insertion, when said ad drags so much negative baggage with it?  If I were CMO, I’d like to think that I never would have seen the concept in the first place, because my agency would have considered and rejected it. But if it had gotten to my desk and I’d reflexively typed “[Fill in the Blank] Nazis” into Google, it’d have been lights out.  No chance to debate whether or not an ad may or may not offend anyone.  Why take the chance? 

In this case, there simply isn’t enough funny in the world to balance the scale. It’s not as if there’s “another side” to the Holocaust.  This isn’t the same as being “offended” by a bunch of guys farting in a TV ad.  Even if you are one of these folks – in the words of Help A Reporter Out Founder Peter Shankman on Twitter, “Nothing good can EVER come from a PR campaign involving Nazis.”  

In a world where trust is a brand’s greatest asset, one’s very first filter has to be good taste.  Audi had no reason to take this kind of risk.  It makes cars that people love – one guy calls  his Audi TT “lovable and charismatic.” The company doesn’t have any controversial point to prove, and the brand doesn’t need shock value. Why take this road?

And in case you think I’m being overly sensitive, or perhaps that killing the campaign would have been tantamount to censorship, you may have a tin ear.  It’s not about us.  It’s about the audience and the message you want them to receive.

Be tough.  Put ideas to the test.  If one person can “reasonably predict” a problem, don’t hogtie the work and your reputation by asking for a punch in the face. There are plenty of great ideas out there that won’t generate over 100,000* negative mentions on Google.  Go find one.

* On February 14, 2010 a Google search on “Audi Nazis Super Bowl” yielded 107,000 results.

Is Santa the best marketer ever?

Think about it:

Long-term reputation management: No Tiger Woods problems here. Ever.  Do you think that Coca-Cola worries that it might go to sleep one night and wake up to find a sex tape of Santa on the Web? Have you ever noticed that the whole “Mommy kissing Santa Claus” business never seems to go past a certain point (paging Charlie Sheen…)?  Nope, not gonna happen.  Santa is one reliable dude.

Brand promise and channel integration: No matter where you go, you receive the same disciplined message.  Movies, television, email, radio, social media, Web, snail mail, music, retail… You get the same message everywhere and each channel builds upon and reinforces the others.  He’s big, he’s fat, he wears a red suit and he gives you what you ask for on Christmas Eve. Not December 23. Not December 25. It’s December 24. Every year. The end.

Never any hidden charges:  There are no Congressional committees convening to discuss whether Santa is taking advantage of consumers.  There is no small print.  You are not likely to be subscribed “accidentally” to a magazine simply by unwrapping a gift beneath the tree.  Santa’s pricing appears to be entirely above board. And somehow, shipping is always free.

mom-reading-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpgBrand advocacy: Think of all the parents who read stories about Santa, take their children to see Santa, tuck said children into bed on Christmas Eve with the promise that Santa will soon arrive with presents… Santa has a virtual army of adults carrying his message each and every year, in the exact way that will have the greatest positive impact on each individual child.  Wow!

Long-term view of the customer relationship: Santa is committed to NPV, and everyone’s NPV is BIG.  If you’re a  kid, he wants you to tell other kids what he gave you.  He wants you to talk to your parents and grandparents about what you want.  He wants you to bring your friends to meet him.  And when you grow up, he encourages you to invite him into your home and buy extravagant gifts in his name.  Santa: the ultimate “cycle of life” promoter.

Customer targeting and personalization: If you ask Santa for a bicycle, you’re going to get a bicycle.  You might also get socks, but if a bike is your preferred method of transportation, you won’t get a wagon by mistake. Further, Santa is very likely to build the bike in the exact color you specify. 

A message of “giving back” that’s attainable and not too sanctimonious:  Be nice, get your gift.  Be naughty, and you’re on your own.  No chest-beating, no lectures, no threatening.  Everyone knows the rules, and the rules don’t change.believe-in-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpg
 
Attributes powerful enough to overcome controversy: Santa has a problem that I don’t think any other brand has ever experienced – that is, some people don’t even believe he exists! You may not like a brand like Reebok, or Microsoft, or Hanes, or whatever, but you wouldn’t think of denying their very existence on the planet. And yet, the core attributes represented by Santa transcend even this existential challenge. Even those who “know” he doesn’t exist still enjoy the gestalt of the brand.  Name me a pizza chain or a department store or TV manufacturer who can say the same.

I could go on (ultimate loyalty program, no channel conflict, efficient manufacturing, distribution and customer service support…), but you get the idea.

Though another Christmas has past, perhaps we should all look to Santa for guidance in 2010.  After all, his operation is well-loved, profitable, always in growth mode and he never loses customers.  I’d be happy with that.

For more marketing thoughts and ideas, check out my second blog at Marketing Observations Grown Daily.

So I walked around all last week, turning the Tiger Woods debacle over in my head, wondering if I had anything to add.  Hadn’t everyone already piled on?  Probably.  And even the thoughts I want to share with you aren’t particularly new, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth saying.  Again. And again.tiger-woods-stephanie-fierman.jpg

Thought #1: what should be public is now private, and what should be private has been made public.  This is an expression borrowed from Ellen Hume, currently an Annenberg Fellow and a world-renowned journalist, teacher and television commentator, among other things. 

Ellen was also the founder of PBS‘s Democracy Project, which focused on citizen involvement in public affairs and was, in part, an effort to more fully leverage all the channels beyond television (that were available even in the late 90’s) in ways that tapped in to those channels’ special capabilities.  The Web is great for providing more in-depth detail than one can deliver on television, for example.

When Hume made this public/private statement, she was making the point that we seem to prefer using 24-hour channels, like the Web, to dredge up every salacious, personal detail about everything and everyone, no matter how ultimately truthful or additive to the story such details may be. By the time we beat said details to death, who even knows what was true or not but, man, what a ride.  Think Tiger here: private details that are now gruesomely public, like a neighbor claiming the golfer was snoring on the lawn and the 911 call heard ’round the world.

Contrast all this with TARP.  Could you explain what TARP is in 25 words or less? How many beneficiaries can you name? How many of them have paid back the money? What is the name of the popular American economist and Nobel Prize winner who has been particularly outspoken and critical of the program? Do you know approximately how much the U.S. government has handed out to date?

I could not answer all of these questions, but I do know that Tiger Woods’ wife used a wedge to smash in his car windows.

After you include Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the U.S. government has doled out over $1 TRILLION in our money. The state of the financial markets has an impact on this country, and an impact on you.  Tiger’s mistresses? Not so much. But dang it all if some knucklehead isn’t updating this story every 20 seconds. 

What is public is private and what should be private is public.  Conduct yourself accordingly.

Related Thought #2: The math doesn’t work anymore. Once something is brewing you can hope for the best, but act, please, assuming the worst.

Just this past week, a smart person I know looked at a situation in which it was possible that Company X might encounter negative press if information having nothing to do with the company was misinterpreted in the media. So this smart person did what smart people are trained to do: s/he attempted to thoughtfully quantify Company X’s exposure – for example, how many individuals might actually be impacted by the event. Everyone comfortably concluded that the answer was not very many.

That used to be a good answer. Not anymore. Now it only takes one person with a high-speed Internet connection and a beef to let millions of people know what he knows or what he thinks he knows. Dell poo-pooed Jeff Jarvis.  United ignored Dave Carroll. Comcast disregarded Mona Shaw.  One blogger with an agenda attempted to trash a model’s reputation.   An anonymous jerk on JuicyCampus.com started a vicious tirade about female Yale Law School students.  Are you next?

devil.jpgIt takes one person to start a fire you will not be able to control.  And some form of this content will remain on the Web forever. For-e-ver.

Forget about intelligent, rational assessments of how big something might become.  By the time it’s big, it’s too late.  It could be one anonymous email, or an angry spouse or a dissatisfied customer.  Move quickly when a crisis arises, or else.

So what I hope Tiger, you and I now have in common is an understanding of the gigantic reputational risks that now exist, given the Web and a 24 hour news cycle.  My advice to normal people is to build a positive reputation online before something happens, so it’s there as a counterbalance to any threat that might arise.  I never thought I needed to recommend that one should also attempt to avoid totally avoidable, stupid acts that could unravel everything a person has built, but hey – a fresh reminder never hurt anyone.

gucci-sunglasses-stephanie-fierman.jpgA recent article made me think back to a post I wrote last summer titled “Stephanie Fierman Likes Plastic Gucci Sunglasses – And Is OK With It.” The post says that experts who say that not-rich consumers are essentially duped into buying luxury goods are missing a large swath of buyers who know exactly what they’re doing: that is, buying fun, knowing full well that they could buy functionality at a far lower price. Hence, Gucci vs. $10 plastic sunglasses I can buy on the street. Plastic is plastic. But that dopey logo represents an indulgence a reward – for which I am sometimes willing to pay full freight.street-vendor-stephanie-fierman.jpg

BusinessWeek outlines the efforts of Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and author of the book Predictably Irrational, who has spent the past year trying to figure out the forces that drive people to cheat (paging Bernie Madoff…)

Ariely’s very very boiled down conclusion is that individuals who are not directly faced with evidence or reminders that what they are doing is wrong are more likely to plow ahead and conversely, those who are reminded are less likely to do so. He describes a couple of experiments he used to try to measure “deception’s slippery slope.”
* Subjects who knowingly wore faux designer sunglasses later cheated twice as often on an unrelated task than those wearing authentic goods – take the first step and it’s that much easier to take the second.
* Get an auto insurance applicant to sign his name on the top of the application rather than the bottom, and he will be more honest about his driving habits – put the consequences right in someone’s face and you’re likely to get “better” behavior.

Here’s a TED video of Ariely talking about why people think it’s ok to cheat:

This has extreme ramifications and potential opportunities for luxury goods manufacturers like LVMH who spend a lot of money and time drawing attention to the costs of counterfeit goods.

Part of the problem is the arguments these companies use. Does the average woman – out with her friends to have a little fun on a Saturday afternoon without a lot of money – have any sympathy when the luxury companies are described as the chief victims of counterfeit buying? I don’t think so.

But what if these manufactures took a different tack, promoting the fact that buying faux fuels organized crime and following it through with stories of what these same criminals did with the $30 I paid for a fake Chloe bag? It certainly wouldn’t be possible in all venues, but could some of these firms visit places like Canal Street in New York and engage directly with potential buyers about the consequences of buying fakes? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this happen. I’ve seen local TV and newspaper stories about how a luxury company has done a raid with local law enforcement… but never a company interacting directly with consumers at the street-level point of purchase.

If was looking at a table full of fake Tiffany merchandise and given proof of the spot that my money goes to fund terrorist groups, what would I do? Would I stand there and think of the two friends I lost on American Airlines Flight 11? I believe I would – and I think I’d walk away from the table, and tell my friends about the experience.

The Guccis and Tod’s and Burberrys of the world need to find a way to debunk the idea that buying fakes is a victimless crime, and they need to do it as close to the moment of impact – the moment I’m about to buy that fake Cartier watch as possible.

Mojo readers know that I truly enjoy the work of two wonderful marketing/business cartoonists and like to share it now and then.  On my second blog, Marketing Observations Grown Daily, it’s David JonesAdland.  Here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp. 

I have to say that  ever since I found out that tweets carry a number of legal risks  I’ve been waiting for someone to deliver this painfully true characterization of what a meeting between Marketing and Legal just might be like… Enjoy!

stephanie-fierman-tom-fishburne-twitter-legal.jpg

Yesterday’s New York Times book review of Ellen Ruppel Shell‘s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture was, I thought, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. [If you cannot see a video about the book below, click HERE.]

The author’s well-researched hypothesis is that we are either ignorant of or – in many cases – simply choose to ignore the profoundly negative, corrosive effects of needing to have everything cheap, cheap, cheap.  The article’s primary example from the book is shrimp, which went from an expensive treat to something you can get at any cheesy seafood chain restaurant nearly any night of the week on the “all you can eat” menu: a phenom fueled by so much greed and artificial chemicals that what they should serve at our tables is the resulting “pollution and toxic waste,” with a side of the “ruinous debt, environmental degradation, horrifying human rights abuses and violence that left millions destitute” in Thailand and other countries.

Yummm.  Pass the garlic bread.

But do Americans care?  Lower food prices at Wal-Mart are impressive because, even if you never set foot in one of its stores, its mere presence drives down food prices in the surrounding area.  Hurray!  Forget about the fact Wal-Mart’s brand-name food items aren’t all that much cheaper, in fact, and how do you know that that chicken isn’t cheaper because it’s of lower quality?  What we do know is, well, all the things we know about how Wal-Mart has historically kept its prices down. 

These practices are why I do not shop at Wal-Mart.  But I’m in the minority.

And has this obsession American’s have with inexpensive goods damaged us in macro ways that are now coming home to roost?  When prices are too low, innovation is nearly impossible, reports a Harvard economist. 

Paging General Motors. Oh, and this moribund company is already “out of bankruptcy?!” Paging the U.S. government…

The only true major American innovation outside of Apple that’s gotten any real attention… has occurred on Wall Street.  And we all know how well that’s going for millions of people.

So I’m worried.  There are a lot of executives who have generated a lot of shareholder value by sticking the low-price needle into our arms… and consumers like it.  Now we’re in a recession, which is likely to compound the effect: many now have no alternative but to shop for the least expensive goods – and others use it as a sadly understandable reason to reverse course and cut back.  People are worried, and conserving:  I’ve seen several studies where people say they’re cutting back on “values” purchases, such as “green” and organic goods for example.

Where does it end?  What do we care about the most?  The U.S. is consistently on the wrong side of global lists of developed countries ranked for homelessnessobesity, high school graduation, health care quality… and we’re the biggest polluter in the world.   

There’s a lot of chest-beating on television about the national debt.  “We’re saddling our grandchildren with crippling debt! Gahhh!”  What about what we’re doing right now – what we care about today? 

I am disheartened by GM’s new adverting campaign. And the fact that they even have one.

Oh, you say you didn’t know that GM was advertising again with your money? Exactly.

But putting aside the “taxpayer money” piece… what could the company possibly know yet that’s different from what it’s been saying (not doing, necessarily, but saying) for years? “We’re starting over, we hear you, we’re building ’em small, we’re going green, we’re gonna be competitive on a global scale.”

The company’s been bankrupt for 20 minutes. No one’s ever run or worked for or invested in a bankrupt GM. Why not take a breath and think about the very first words you want the American public to hear from you?

But instead the company moved forward with ads that were obviously made prior to the bankruptcy announcement. They already knew what they were supposed to say (see above rebirth, small, green, etc.), so they put some ads out there and paid Donny Deustch a bunch of money to go on Morning Joe and say great things… just as they might have done for any big new happening.

And there’s the rub. This advertising – who knows, maybe any advertising right now – IMHO says “business as usual” for this car company. With a tinge of humility (see hockey player land on his face), it’s all good feelings and autos and rah-rah.

In World War II, auto plants retooled to make planes, tanks and munitions. Michael Moore has said that “the only way to save GM is to kill GM” and that the U.S. must seize this moment in history to re-envision the corporation on nearly the same scale.

Whatever one thinks of Michael Moore, I believe we can all agree that radical change is in order. And maybe GM will shine once again in some new incarnation. I hope so. But by instantly and reflexively pushing out the standard flag-waving, sun-rising, children-playing advertising, GM has sent that first all-important signal to the marketplace: and it looks eerily like the old one.