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In Magazine Ad, GM Atones for Mistakes

"He was appropriately respectful of Congress and the process," Grabowski said. "He didn't come on his knees, but he did come with a plan and with a guarantee to turn Chrysler around."

Mattel chief executive Robert A. Eckert won praise for apologizing before Congress for the lead paint found in millions of the company's toys last year. But hearing Eckert say sorry too often took away his earnestness.

"It got to be too much," Grabowski said. "It was over the top."

Then, there's the complete lack of an apology. None of the financial institutions that recently received a government bailout, from AIG to Citigroup, have formally expressed regret as GM has.

"That has totally alienated people," marketing guru Jack Trout said. "People are mad as hell at the financial crowd."

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) went as far as saying he wants Wall Street executives to deliver Japanese-style apologies to the American people.

"I am talking about scenes I've seen on television where in belly-up corporations the CEOs go before the board of directors, before the public, before the stockholders and bow deeply and apologize for their mismanagement," he said in a statement in October. "Something like that happening among Wall Street executives would go a long way toward satisfying my constituents and many Americans that help might be needed and would more gracefully be given by the taxpayers of this county."

But that's a cultural difference, said Lamar Reinsch, a professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. If this auto crisis were unfolding in Japan, the Japanese chief executives would be resigning immediately. The American have not been as ready to admit wrong. Ford and Chrysler's executives have not been on the job long. Wagoner has been credited with negotiating important concessions from the United Auto Workers.

"All three of the Big Three would be better off if they had shown more humility earlier," Reinsch said.

But from a marketing perspective, GM's frank request for forgiveness and promise to improve nailed what Trout calls the "Law of Candor."

"You admit a negative as a way of setting up a positive," Trout said. "It's not enough to say 'I screwed up.' You want to say 'I screwed up but here's the good that's going to come out of it.' "

Which brings the company to step two: Solve it.

"Talk is pretty cheap," said Jonathan R. Cohen, a University of Florida law professor who has studied corporate apology-making. "Action is often more telling."

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