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.