Facebook, Uber, Wells Fargo, and the new wave of Apology Ads

The latest rash of mea culpa-as-marketing ads illustrates how hard it can be for a brand to say sorry.

Two of the toughest words in the English language to string together just might be “I’m sorry.” It’s not so much the pronunciation holding us back as it is a reluctance built on a deep-seeded gurgling of guilt, mixed with a smattering of moral dilemma, a pinch of paranoia, and perhaps a dash of wanting to avoid being punched in the neck. And that’s just when it comes to personal matters.


Corporate apologies are an entirely different animal, turning the Inside Out version of our brains into an actual boardroom of people and personalities trying to find the right way to admit wrongdoing without, y’know, really admitting any wrongdoing. Nowhere is this delicate art more transparent than the Apology Ad. If you’ve been watching the NBA Playoffs, you’ll know we’re in the midst of an Apology Ad renaissance not seen since the 2009-2010 sorry season when brands like Domino’s, Toyota, GM, and BP were all offering up their own versions of TV ad atonement.

Domino’s was apologizing for its crappy pizza.

General Motors was apologizing for getting bailed out.

Toyota was apologizing for a massive car recall.

BP CEO Tony Hayward apology for his company’s oil spill disaster in the Gulf Coast wasn’t warmly received, but it did inspire this gem from South Park.

Now, at a time where most companies stick to delivering mea culpas via press release or social media, Facebook, Wells Fargo, and Uber have deemed their current PR situations dire enough to warrant a full-on Apology Ad.  Let’s take a closer look at the tone of each, where they land on the Sorry Scale between “PLEASE FORGIVE US” and “Sorry, not sorry,” and what we learned from it.


Wells Fargo “Earning Back Your Trust”

Tone: This was just a blip, trust our cowboy past, not the multiple fraud scandals.

Sorry Scale: Sort of?

If you just list off the good things you’ve done, that one teenie-tiny mistake won’t look so big, right? This may work if you broke your spouse’s favorite mug while making them breakfast. But when your company was caught creating accounts and credit cards for customers without their consent to boost your bottom line and charging unfair mortgage fees, and your CEO got scorched on national TV for multiple transgressions, amid other customer service disasters—all over a less than three-year period? Not so much.

Uber “Moving Forward”

Tone: The other guys did it.

Sorry Scale: “I’m as upset about this as you are.”

When in doubt, side with the offended. After more than a year of trying to make real changes within the company to counter an image problem fuelled by sexual harassment charges, driver mistreatment, profiting from protests to President Trump’s initial travel ban, stealing trade secrets, and more, Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi makes it clear the new regime would like to start with a clean slate.


Facebook “Here Together”

Tone: C’moooon, we’re friends. Cambridge Analyti-who? Look at these pictures of your BFF on vacation! LOOK AT THEM.

Sorry Scale: “Sorry, not sorry.”

“But then something happened.” Uh-huh. It feels like Facebook is painting itself as a victim of the Cambridge Analytica personal data breach. But it’s also important to remember that the company made almost $40 billion in ad revenue last year, largely based on all the data it was able to gather about you. The lack of actual consequences since the scandal, in ad revenue or stock value, illustrates the brand’s reluctance to really lean into its apology. For both advertisers and users, it bet on a “where else you gonna go?” strategy, and it seems to be working.

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.