Of all the genres of US television advertising, we admit that our favorite is the post-bailout thank you – the PBTY, if you will.
Just ask Chrysler, GM and AIG: no bailout seems to be really complete without a schmoopy, tear-jerking TV ad to thank American taxpayers for their support, noting, proudly, that the company has paid back every blessed dollar. This genre requires stirring music, lots of pictures of noble municipal statuary in big cities, and weighty reminders of the ineffable beauty of the American embrace of progress. It also helps if there is a kind of "bring it on" tone, befitting a Rocky film.
AIG, for instance, put out a very nice post-bailout thank-you ad this month. It carries the name "Thank You America", and features either extremely videogenic AIG employees or actors that look like AIG employees pointing out that AIG has not only paid its bailout back, but it also made a profit for the US on the bailout terms. There's another, longer, more boastful AIG video, clocking in at two minutes and 45 seconds. Made up of clip art, moving timelines and lots and lots of flashing numbers, it looks like an animated version of the company's annual report. It ends, optimistically: "We're the new AIG, and we can't wait for tomorrow," followed with what appears to be the company's new tagline: "AIG: bring on tomorrow."
Stirring! Both of these would be classics of the post-bailout thank-you form of advertising in a perfect world. There's only one catch, unfortunately: to do a post-bailout thank-you ad, you have to be really thankful.
We're on the hunt for more bailout apology ads. Have you spotted any? Tell us here
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the newly svelte insurer is considering joining a lawsuit against the US government. The complaint? That Uncle Sam imposed harsh terms on AIG for its bailout, thus depriving its shareholders of their proper profits.
The chutzpah of this is indisputable; it's like demanding royalties from your doctor because you got sick and thus gave him business. A Comedy Central Twitter feed sardonically noted, "Watching this ad is like receiving a thank you note from a guy who 'borrowed' your credit card information." It followed up with an incredulous blog post that started: "AIG may be a corporate behemoth that needed billions of taxpayer dollars to pay off its toxic debts (and to sponsor an English soccer team and pay huge executive bonuses), but darn it, it's a polite corporate behemoth."
It escapes no one's notice that, during the throes of the financial crisis, when money was hard to come by, AIG wrenched $182bn from the federal government because of two factors: its enormous importance to the financial system, and its repetitive tendency to shoot itself in the foot with over-reaching investments. This is in keeping with AIG's history of being dragged, kicking and screaming, to every bit of financial discipline that saved the company. There are many who would say that the four years that the company spent in the finely manicured hands of treasury secretary Tim Geithner were the only thing that saved AIG from its own past of self-destructive investing impulses.
But then, the post-bailout thank-you genre is not one that is focused on humility. It benefits from a little pugilism, a punchy, snub-nosed spirit of challenge. The PBTY is not only an emotional act of gratitude to taxpayers; it's the "what are you looking at?" of corporate dignity. It is a company, recently down on its luck, declaring to America, "we may have once needed your money, but we don't need your pity."
To get a better understanding, witness the excellent work on the subject done by GM and Chrysler. A troupe of football coaches could not be more inspiring. After you watch a batch of post-bailout thank-you ads from GM and Chrysler, it seems that the only patriotic thing to do is storm the White House, asking why we aren't bailing out more companies. It's our duty as Americans.
Let's revisit them now.
GM kicked off the post-bailout thank-you genre in 2009, with a pre-bailout thank you. It ran just after it was shoved into Chapter 11 bankruptcy by an exasperated federal government that wanted the company to restructure itself in a hurry. GM displayed one of the key features of the post-bailout thank-you: talkiness. There need to be a lot of words in these ads. The tone, in this case, was direct, folksy and midwestern. "Let's be completely honest. No company wants to go through this," an authoritative narrator declares. After a few seconds of explanation, he concludes: "This is not about going out of business. This is about getting down to business. Because the only chapter we're focused on is chapter one."
It was roughly a year later, after the bailout seemed to work, that GM ran two ads. To connoisseurs, these are among the finest of the post-bailout thank-you form. The first, called Thank You (We All Fall Down), opens with a boxer taking a hard hit in the boxing ring, followed by some unexpected images of great American resilience: Popeye, John Belushi as Bluto in Animal House, and Evel Knievel. Each of them gets back up after a setback. The ad, accompanied by spindly, thoughtful piano music, closes with white letters on a black screen: "We all fall down. Thank you for helping us get back up."
After that, GM got serious with its ad, named Trust. This one tackled the bailout head-on. "A lot of Americans didn't agree with giving GM a second chance," says GM CEO Ed Whitacre, striding through a factory. "That's why we are proud to announce we have repaid our government loans in full with interest, five years before it was expected of us." The ad concludes with Whitacre standing before an army of employees and cars, declaring, "we invite you to take a look at the new GM."
The finest of the form, however, is done by Chrysler, which pulled out all the stops in its ad campaigns: the stirring music, the blazing images, the celebrities – Eminem, Clint Eastwood and John Varvatos – inspirational poetry, and even Latin. Latin! What makes the Chrysler ads the best of the post-bailout thank you form is that they're not really full of gratitude. They're full of fight. They want to tell you a little something you might not know about real life.
The best Chrysler ad is really a defense of Detroit itself against big-city interlopers from New York, Chicago, and presumably, Washington. "What does a town that's been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?" asks a narrator who sounds suspiciously like the one in the GM ads. "Well, I'll tell you: more than most. You see, it's the hottest fires that make the hardest steel."
To make absolutely clear that people outside Detroit will never understand Detroit, the narrator dismisses big-city journalists: "That's not the story you've been reading in papers by the folks who have never been here and don't even know what we're capable of. We're from America." That last is a reference to the fact that Italy's Fiat owns Chrysler, which the defiant "imported from Detroit" tagline refers to. Then there's Eminem and a choir wearing full scarlet-and-black robes in an empty auditorium.
Chrysler, in fact, embedded bailouts as the subtext in nearly all of its wildly successful comeback ad campaign. One Chrysler 200 ad opened, confusingly, with that authoritative voice speaking in Latin. It turns out that he was declaiming Detroit's motto, something about rising from the ashes. Another ad, named Voices, featured a Detroit tabernacle community choir, talking about healing. An ad for the Chrysler 300 is an extended quotation from a poem that ends, "When you're up against a trouble, meet it squarely, face to face. You may fail, but fall still fighting. Don't give up. Eyes front, head high to the finish. See it through."
A rather sardonic Chrysler ad, about "advice," starts: "On the way to the top, everyone 's got advice for ya – what you're doing wrong, and how to do things they've never done themselves." Then the narrator describes Chrysler's sound-reducing technology: "So on your way to the top, you can keep the sound of doubt outside." Sure, it's aspirational – "on the way to the top" – but as Damon Runyon's gangsters might enjoy the concept.
But Chrysler did veer into the somewhat more emo form last year, with a Clint Eastwood ad that read more like "are you there, God? It's us, Chrysler."
The company's Super Bowl ad connected Detroit's struggle to get back to its former glory with America's struggles in the depths of the Great Recession.
"It's halftime in America," Eastwood opens, in his trademark velvet croak. "People are out of work, and they're hurting, and they're wondering what they can do to make it come back. And they're scared, because this isn't a game." But wait, there is optimism: "We all rallied around what was right, and acted as one … This country can't be knocked out with one punch. We get back up again, and when we do, the world will hear the roar of our engines."
Yes, "what was right," in that ad, refers to the auto bailouts. It makes quasi-nationalization of struggling auto manufacturers not just an act of desperation, but a proud civic duty. The founding fathers might have vomited at the idea, but there's no argument that it made for a great ad.
It is probably the hope of most Americans that the post-bailout thank-you ad genre will end here, if only because we don't want to be dragged through the drama of any more bailouts. But if you have to be bailed out, it doesn't hurt to have a stylish ad to commemorate your victory.
What have we missed: Have you spotted other bailout apology ads? Tell us! Post your links in the comment section below and Heidi will include them in this post. You can also tweet us @GuardianUS.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010