Behind Domino's mea culpa ad campaign

By Paul Farhi
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

For sheer corporate candor, it's tough to beat Domino's latest delivery. In its new TV commercial and Web video, the pizza chain admits something startling -- namely, that its pizza is pretty terrible.

" 'Worst excuse for pizza I ever had,' " a company executive says grimly, quoting a customer's comment. " 'Totally devoid of flavor.' " "Domino's pizza crust to me is like cardboard," says a woman in a clip taken from a focus-group panel.

Another employee, who appears near tears, reads another review: " 'The sauce tastes like ketchup.' " This is a way to win customers?

Domino's very public admission of its own awfulness might represent the most elaborate mea culpa ad in history. But it's hardly the first. Companies sometimes admit their flaws and faults in a bid for public empathy. The strategy usually has two parts. Part one: Fess up. Part two: Vow to do better. While Domino's never quite expresses remorse, the crusty comments in its commercial do set up the company's promise to improve, with better ingredients and a new pizza recipe.

Airlines such as United and JetBlue have prostrated themselves in public to mollify travelers enraged by scheduling snafus. Fast-food outfits have done it, too; Hardee's trashed the poor quality of its hamburgers in an ad campaign a few years ago. Domestic car manufacturers have practically made an art of acknowledging their shortcomings; General Motors went on an apology tour starting in late 2008 when it began lobbying for billions of dollars in federal bailout funds. Last summer, as it went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, it flooded the airwaves with a commercial that acknowledged, "General Motors needs to start over in order to get stronger."

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This week, as Domino's was rolling out its self-lacerating confession, the Chicago Bears took out newspaper ads to apologize to the team's fans for its subpar performance. "In a season where we did not perform at our best, we are further humbled by the fact that our fans stepped up and did their part," the ads said. (For the record, the Bears finished with a 7-9 record, considerably better than the 4-12 Redskins, who have yet to publish any apologies.)

Domino's says its ad strategy wasn't prompted by crisis or underperformance (its market share has held steady through the recession). Rather, the company says it's knocking its pizza as a way to show that it's committed to doing better: "We're proving to our customers that we are listening to them by brutally accepting the criticism that's out there," says Patrick Doyle, the company's incoming chief executive, in an interview. Doyle appears in the new TV ad and Web video, looking perplexed and somewhat hurt by customers' negative assessments.

He adds, "We think that going out there and being this honest really breaks through to people in a way that most advertising does not."

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Acknowledging that you've messed up may win some goodwill among consumers, but marketing experts say it also carries some risks.

"Some people are going to hear only part of the message" -- Domino's stinks -- "and not hear the part about how they're going to get better," says Bill Benoit, a communications professor at Ohio University. Thus, apology ads can reinforce negative perceptions and raise awareness of them among people who've never tried, or even heard of, the product.

But Benoit, the author of "Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies," a book about how corporations and individuals restore their reputations, generally applauds the Domino's approach. "People do not like to admit they're wrong, but they do like to hear other people admit it," he says. "When someone does fess up, people tend to respect you for having the courage to admit it."

Plus, he says, "once you've said, 'Our pizza tastes like cardboard,' you've got people's attention. Most people will ignore you if you just said, 'We're new and improved.' Every [advertiser] says that. This gets people to sit up and take notice."

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Another potential problem: credibility. Hasn't Domino's been saying for years how great its pizza is? And isn't it now insulting all the customers who thought its product was just fine the way it was?

"It's a very dangerous game," says Claudia Caplan, a veteran advertising executive. "Two bad things can happen: You drive away the people who liked the old pizza better, and you don't really make the new pizza better, which makes your [new] customers say, 'You lied to me.' Domino's has to make damn sure they're not making it 5 percent better. It better be 50 percent better."

Caplan's former ad agency, Mendelsohn Zien of Los Angeles, created a campaign for Hardee's in 2004 that explored territory similar to Domino's. The Hardee's spots featured young actors who spoke directly into the camera to attest to the general lousiness of Hardee's hamburgers. "My experience with Hardee's as far as burgers go? Uh uh, not so great," said one. ". . . Maybe it's hard to make a great burger if you're also trying to make fried chicken, ham-and-cheese sandwiches and hotdogs. I mean, I wouldn't go to a dentist who claimed to be a brain surgeon or a plumber. So why would you let Hardee's make your burger?"

The ads went on to note that Hardee's was paring its menu offerings, and using higher-quality beef in its burgers. The result? Customer-satisfaction scores have improved substantially since the ads aired, Caplan says.

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A frank admission of failure may work for a burger chain, but it may not be the ticket for a politician fighting to stay in office. During his 2008 campaign for reelection, Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) went on the air to apologize to voters for a trip to Scotland he took with disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"I embarrassed myself and embarrassed you, and for that I am very sorry," Feeney said in the commercial. "I approved this message because public service is about being honest even when you make a mistake."

The confession may have been good for Feeney's soul, but it didn't do much for his poll numbers. It may even have compounded his problems by reminding voters of his questionable judgment and bad behavior. He lost his bid for reelection.

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