It was the first game of the NBA Western Conference Finals on Monday night, and the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets were in a deadlock. The tense playoff game cut to a commercial break, and the face of Uber's new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, appeared on the TV.
"One of our core values as a company is to always do the right thing," Khosrowshahi said. "And if there are times when we fall short, we commit to being open, taking responsibility for the problem and fixing it."
Uber bought ad time during the high-profile basketball game to try to reach as many viewers as possible with its message: We're not the toxic company we used to be.
Buying TV ads is nothing new. Companies famously try to get as many eyeballs as possible during big events like the Super Bowl and the Oscars. And tech companies, from Google to Amazon to Apple, are known for purchasing these ad slots.
But apology ads coming out of Silicon Valley are a novelty. They're not exactly winning over customers just yet, but this is a long game.
"When you're dealing with an avalanche of smear and you're in a rat hole scenario, you're looking for ways to connect emotionally," said Eric Schiffer, a brand management expert and CEO of Reputation Management Consultants. "When you have a CEO that is dealing with a firm that's been bashed in the teeth and is willing to go on television and show that he cares, that helps to rebuild accountability."
That may be why, last month, Facebook ran a TV ad titled "Facebook Here Together." The spot aired just after CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress about the massive Cambridge Analytica data leak connected with the 2016 US presidential election.
"We came here for our friends," Facebook's ad starts off. "But then something happened. We had to deal with spam, clickbait, fake news and data misuse."
The ad ends by saying, "that's going to change."
Both Facebook and Uber have experienced a rough year when it comes to public sentiment. Both companies were the focus of intense backlash from their users -- angered by scandals and lack of transparency -- which spawned both #DeleteUber and #DeleteFacebook movements. Wells Fargo, embroiled in its own fracas, also put out an apology ad, last week.
"When you're a CEO in an extremely dangerous situation for your brand, one of the rip cords that will save your scalp, and that of the company, is to leverage mediums where you're not going to get an immediate reply," Schiffer said. "Television is just that."
Schiffer said TV ads are better than static and print ads at reaching consumers' emotional sides and influencing them without any noise.
A Facebook spokeswoman said its ad is part of a national marketing campaign with TV, digital, cinema and billboard advertising, which it began testing in Chicago in mid-March. Shortly before it launched that campaign, the social-media company took out full-page ads in major newspapers with Zuckerberg saying "I'm sorry we didn't do more at the time," in reference to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
"We are taking a broader view of our responsibilities," the spokeswoman said. "And we hope this campaign will show that we take that responsibility seriously and are working to improve Facebook for everyone."
Uber didn't respond to a request for comment on its ad.
Public response to the 60-second TV ads has been mixed. On social media sites, some people have thanked the companies for acknowledging the problem, while others have left snarky, even angry, responses.
"Splashy public transit ads and fun commercials like this may not be enough to assure that 'fake news' of any ideology will not further fracture strained relations in the public arena," wrote a Facebook user named Bernadette Libao.
Twitter user Jacquelyn Pogue said, "Apology tours are 'in' apparently."
Also on Twitter, Musa Tariq said, "When will brands realize a 60 second film just doesn't work anymore. Invest your money in doing and then let your actions/people's experience speak for you. Rant over."
Schiffer said ads like these aren't meant to change sentiment from one day to the next, but rather the idea is to get the message out and let it grow.
"It's not a home run, but a single," said Schiffer. "And when you do enough of it over time, you begin to light a positive torch of sentiment about the brand."
(Oh yeah, and the Warriors won.)
Here are Facebook's and Uber's ads:
First published May 17, 5:34 p.m. PT.
Update, May 18 at 12:50 p.m.: Adds information on Facebook's newspaper ads.
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