What does a company with an otherwise laudable social impact record need to do after a mistake as avoidable as a sexual harassment-themed ad?
After we added Method, a company that makes green-friendly cleaning products, to our list of GOOD Company Project finalists, commenter ABGUSHTE wrote:
Isn't Method that company that made the awful sexual-harrassy commercial a couple of years ago? And then took it down and gave a non-apology apology? Yeah...I will never use their products.
That comment, along with a number of e-mails about the controversy, demonstrate that people haven't forgotten that Method did indeed produce an ugly ad in 2009:
“We have removed the video from YouTube and other controlled sources, and we have reached out to every person who contacted us to let them know that we removed the video. We also apologized for any offense we caused.”\n
As anyone who’s been in middle school is aware, “I’m sorry you were offended” isn’t the same as “I’m sorry for doing something wrong.”
All this raises an important question about how we assess a company's social impact: What does a business with an otherwise laudable social impact record need to do after a mistake as avoidable as a sexual harassment-themed ad?
Method’s public relations contacts haven’t replied to several attempts to contact them about their company and this issue—I’d love to talk!—but there is an argument for some kind of statute of limitations. The company did take the ad down, and it’s unlikely they’ll forget the experience when they’re green-lighting their next ad campaign. If we don’t reward companies that respond to criticism by changing their behavior, all the criticism will have been wasted.
On the other hand, Method’s response wasn’t exactly laudable. I spoke with several brand strategists about how the firm should have approached the controversy, and they weren’t impressed with the lack of accountability in the statement, agreeing the brand should have acknowledged that the commercial was inappropriate. Otherwise, their decision to pull the spot seems to like an attempt to assuage complaining customers without changing their approach to marketing.
“You can’t hide anymore,” one strategist said. In a world where media is social and the internet remembers everything, total transparency is the key for any company—especially one that makes brand identity a major part of its sales pitch. Juggernaut Clorox can market anything that cleans, but Method's success requires it to maintain its image as a progressive company where efforts at sustainability are matched by respect for women.
It’s hard to imagine that Method will re-open this can of worms now by addressing the issue the way they probably should have in 2009, but it’s a lesson for other companies. Nivea, the beauty products company, was recently embroiled in a similar public relations mishap when an ad suggested that natural hair on a black male model was “uncivilized.” The company apologized within hours:
“This ad was inappropriate and offensive. It was never our intention to offend anyone, and for this we are deeply sorry. This ad will never be used again.”\n
Note the firm’s acknowledgement of the mistake, not that people were offended. The difference between Nivea and Method is the authenticity that comes from frank acknowledgement of a mistake rather than an unwillingness to hold itself accountable.
It's unfortunate that the ad and its response clearly lingers in the minds of many who would otherwise be Method customers, and that what was no doubt the product of a small number of people has affected the image of the entire corporation.
Of course, some folks, including the editors of Ad Age, thought the commercial didn’t warrant the outcry, and Method pointed out at the time that the viral video garnered attention for a campaign for cleaning product label transparency. But I, for one, was too busy cringing at the harassment to get the message.