If the business of America is business, as some blowhard once observed, then surely public relations is a close second. Indeed, while all governments spew propaganda at a prodigious rate, none can match our own in terms of conflating a genuinely reprehensible history (imperialism, international terrorism and espionage, near-genocidal theft of the continent, enduring racism, an ongoing class war, etc.) with a positive public image (freedom, liberty, economic opportunity, equality, blahblahblah). And while you may dismiss that image as the sham it so obviously is, it’s important to remember that it’s an image that an astonishingly large portion of the world has gladly swallowed whole. Take a moment to view the United States as a product, rather than as a country, and it becomes clear that America has benefited from the most ingeniously successful marketing effort of all time.
Unsurprisingly, this effort is mirrored in the tactics of the corporate conglomerates that rule the American economy. Eager to be seen as friendly, progressive entities interested in enhancing and enriching the social fabric of American life, corporations engage in a series of obfuscatory maneuvers designed to make them look like our pals. You already know all the standard tricks that they use, whether they’re supporting public television, underwriting an art exhibition, or whatever—anything to get our minds off of their draconian labor policies, their abuse of the environment, their single-minded drive to satisfy their stockholders.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the corporate consumer-relations departments. Here, safely sequestered from view, teams of customer-service staffers work the toll-free phone lines and answer mail from agitated consumers, endeavoring to convince us that the corporation is Our Friend. Consumer-relations workers are endlessly trained to be helpful, pleasant, friendly, and agreeable, and with good reason—direct consumer-to-company communication, unfiltered through the artifice of advertising, is a rare and dangerous threat to the corporate marketing effort, which depends on material distractions, status appeal, sex appeal, outright lies, and so forth. Moreover, these customer-service reps are often the only direct, live link between the company and its consumer market, so the image they exude is critical. If corporate marketing and advertising creates a mighty huff and puff that could be equated with the Wizard of Oz, then consumer-relations are the man behind the curtain.
How ridiculous it is, then, that customer-service employees are almost invariably underpaid, poorly educated people. They parrot the company position on this question or that, consult their supervisor when faced with a particularly vexing query, and maintain an unfailingly sunny disposition; independent thought, of course, is not in their job description. While these staffers can be quite efficient (I happen to have had several satisfying encounters with them, as we’ll see in a moment), the thought that they actually speak for their respective corporations is laughable. Like, we’re really supposed to believe that the multi-skillion-dollar company (complete with its multi-millionaire chairman) is Our Friend just because some minimum-wage teleprole tells us to have a nice day?
Notwithstanding the relentless cynicism of publications like this one, however, we should concede that these consumer-relations departments have generally succeeded in their mission to give a public voice to faceless corporations. I learned a long time ago that consumer-relations departments can be fun, and over the years I’ve had more than my share of encounters with them. What follows is a breakdown of eight such encounters. In each case, I’ve detailed the nature of my query and the response I received. I’ve also rated each response on a scale of one to five ☺s, indicating the consumer bliss and corresponding corporate goodwill generated by each experience.
Company: Borden, Inc.
Reason for Inquiry: While attending a 1988 minor league baseball game in Columbus, Ohio (which, by coincidence, is home to Borden’s corporate headquarters), I purchased a box of Cracker Jack that did not contain a free toy surprise. I have never even heard of this happening to anyone else, before or since.
Method of Inquiry: Outraged letter to Borden HQ.
Response: A prompt but boring letter from Consumer Representative Jane Huber, extolling the virtues of free toy surprises and lamenting the limitations of modern packing equipment. I also received a 35-cent coupon, good toward my next purchase of Cracker Jack (right, just try redeeming that at the ballpark), and a small, compensatory assortment of rather lame-o free toy surprises.
Company: Green Bay Packers football franchise
Reason for Inquiry: In September of 1993, the Packers announced that the team would have new uniforms for the 1994 season, an alarming prospect to those design aesthetes among us who appreciate the Green Bay uni’s for what they are: the most visually appealing uniforms in all of professional sports.
Method of Inquiry: Urgent letter to the Packers offices.
Response: Packers team President Bob Harlan called me at work and chatted me up for a good 20 minutes or so, explaining the rationale behind the impending uniform switcheroo (he essentially blamed the whole thing on head coach Paul Holmgren), listening patiently to my arguments for retaining the existing design, and generally coming off like a very nice guy. When he mentioned that the team had received a flood of responses from concerned fans like myself, I asked him if he was personally calling each respondent. “No,” he said, pausing slightly before delivering the punch line he just knew I’d love to hear, “just the ones who wrote particularly good letters, like yours.” Charmed and seduced by this snow job, I wistfully suggested that Bob’s very demanding job probably left him with little time for these sorts of exchanges with the Packers’ fan base, but he said, “It’s not as tough as you might think—and besides, this is part of my job.” Intrigued by the notion of a consumer-relations rep at the executive level, and sensing a cushy new career goal unfolding before me, I asked Bob if perhaps I could have his job, but he said no. He concluded matters by reminding me that in spite of our new buddy-buddy relationship, his decision was final—the Packers would have new uniforms in 1994. I hung up, disappointed but bemused.
Follow-up: Bob also sent me a letter—on very nice-looking Green Bay Packers 75th Anniversary stationary, I might add—reiterating the major points of our discussion and concluding, “I guarantee you that the Packers will have a class uniform.” I remained unconvinced, but Bob had definitely succeeded in convincing me that he was My Friend.
Epilogue: In spite of Bob’s “final” decision on the matter, three months later the Packers announced that they were scrapping their plans for new uniforms, much to my relief. Naturally, I like to think my discussion with Bob had something to do with it.
Company: Continental Baking Company
Reason for Inquiry: In early 1994 I noticed that Hostess Cup Cakes were no longer being packaged on that familiar little piece of cardboard. Instead, the cupcakes were now sitting in a very unattractive pre-molded plastic tray. This totally ruined the whole cupcake experience for me, because, as everyone knows, the best part of eating Hostess Cup Cakes (or Twinkies, or Suzy-Qs) is removing the confections from the package and then running your finger along the cardboard, thereby salvaging the pastry residue that inevitably sticks there. I mean, that’s the best part—am I right?
Method of Inquiry: Phone call to the Hostess consumer-response line.
Response: A personable woman told me that the change had taken place because too many cupcakes had gotten squished and squashed by rough handling during their trip from the bakery to the grocery shelf (“damage control,” she called it—a rare non-figurative use of this term). When I asked why similar steps has not been taken to protect the equally squishy and squashy Twinkies and Suzy-Qs, both of which remain packaged on the cardboard base, my Hostess contact was stumped. When I suggested that she inquire of her colleagues and/or superiors on this topic, she declined. My energy flagging, I abandoned my pursuit.
Epilogue: I’ve since largely given up Hostess Cup Cakes in favor of Twinkies.
Company: Nabisco Brands, Inc.
Reason for Inquiry: I was curious regarding the historical background and fiber content of the little string handle on the Animal Crackers box.
Method of Inquiry: Phone call to the Nabisco consumer-response line.
Response: An extremely pleasant woman told me that the string handle is 100 percent cotton, and was introduced shortly after Animal Crackers were launched in 1902. The string was originally supposed to the turn the Animal Crackers box into a Christmas-tree ornament—you could hang the box on your tree by the string handle—although this appears to have been lost in the shuffle over the years.
Follow-up: Within a week of my call, I received a promotional flier, telling me everything I could ever want to know about Animal Crackers, including how many crackers are contained in each box (22), how many animals have been depicted in cracker form over the years (37), how many boxes are sold annually (upwards of 40 million), the time it takes to bake Animal Crackers in the Nabisco ovens (about four minutes), and the total amount of string used on the boxes each year (about 6,000 miles’ worth).
Company: Ohio Art Company
Reason for Inquiry: I’d lost my Official Etch-A-Sketch Club Member sew-on patch (one of the perks of being an Official Etch-A-Sketch Club Member, don’tcha know), and was hoping to obtain a replacement from the company.
Method of Inquiry: Phone call to Ohio Art.
Response: I was transferred to the woman in charge of the Official Etch-A-Sketch Club, who listened while I explained my tale of woe. She was patient and attentive, but not particularly friendly or enthusiastic—sort of boringly professional. After remarking that I sounded a bit older than the typical club member, she said she’d be able to replace the patch for me at no charge.
Follow-up: My replacement patch arrived a week or so later.
Epilogue: I later found the original patch behind my dresser.
Company: The Brannock Device Company, Inc.
Reason for Inquiry: I’d always been fascinated by the Brannock Device—that thing they use to measure your shoe size—and wanted to know how I could obtain one.
Method of Inquiry: Phone call to Brannock central.
Response: A very obnoxious woman informed me that the Brannock Device was not available to mere consumers like myself. “Do you work for a shoe store?” she belched. “How about for a shoe-supply company?” When I replied that I simply admired the Brannock Device for its gorgeous design values and that I would be proud to own one, she basically told me to go away.
Epilogue: The next day I went to three or four shoe stores until I found one that was willing to order me a Brannock Device of my very own.
Company: Hershey’s Chocolate USA
Reason for Inquiry: I was distressed to see that Hershey’s Miniatures candy bars had undergone a particularly disturbing packaging modification: For years they’d been packaged in a sheet of foil that was then encased in a looped paper wrapper, leaving the shiny foil tips exposed at the end of each bar, just like most other chocolate bars (and sticks of chewing gum, if you’re having difficulty visualizing what I’m talking about). But now they were being packaged in a single foil wrapper with a simulated paper wrapper printed onto the foil. The label design was printed over precisely the same area of candy bar that the old label used to cover, giving the phony visual effect of “exposed” (i.e., unprinted) foil tips. My complaint was twofold: I found the new packaging arrangement less primally satisfying, and I was thoroughly put off by the blatant misrepresentation and consumer manipulation involved in simulating the old design with the new.
Method of Inquiry: Phone call to the Hershey’s consumer-response line.
Response: A bad scene from the get-go. For starters, my call was put on hold for quite some time, and someone should tell Hershey’s that nobody likes to listen to opera when they’re waiting for their call to be handled. The customer-service rep who eventually came on the line was either new to the job or totally incompetent—it took something like ten minutes just to get her to understand what I was talking about, after which she repeatedly put me on hold (more opera) while trying to track down an answer to my question. She ultimately informed me that the packaging alteration was “probably done for manufacturing reasons,” perhaps because of “new equipment in the plant.” When I queried her about the consumer-deception aspect of all this, she became so flummoxed that she momentarily abandoned her role as corporate spokesperson and gave me her own opinion on the matter: “I don’t think most people would mind, but obviously you do.” At this point I figured I’d better just forget about getting my consumer satisfaction here, so I admitted that I was a journalist and asked for the company’s media-relations department. After I was briefly put on hold again (more opera), a supervisor came on the line, quizzed me regarding my credentials, and promised to put the company’s media people in touch with me later in the day. I never heard from Hershey’s again.
Follow-up: When writing about this incident in my magazine and newspaper column, I encouraged my readers to send protest letters to Hershey’s regarding the packaging situation, and to forward copies of the companies responses, if any, to me. Several did so, and I am now the proud owner of a dozen or so identical form letters from Hershey’s to assorted consumers. Each letter concludes with a dubious promise to “forward your comments to our Packaging Department.”
Company: Johnson & Johnson Consumer Products, Inc.
Reason for Inquiry: Once again, a packaging issue—a friend pointed out that Band-Aids are no longer being packaged with that little red tear-string. She and I agreed that while the tear-string rarely worked in the first place—it always got jammed, stuck, etc.—it was nonetheless an important element of the Band-Aid consumer equation, as essential to the whole experience as that unmistakable Band-Aid smell. Indeed, although the new Band-Aids packaging is undeniably easier-opening, we both felt a bit glum about the whole thing. As she put it, “Even though I could never get the strings to work when I was bleeding to death, I still thought they were—well, the way Band-Aids were supposed to be.”
Method of Inquiry: Phone call to Johnson & Johnson consumer-response line.
Response: An extremely pleasant and patient woman answered all of my questions. The tear-string, it turns out, had been introduced in 1940 and was eliminated in 1993. “People were surprised but glad,” said my J&J rep. “They found the string quite frustrating to use at times, especially when they already had a cut.” She said she’d received quite a few calls on the subject, but reported that I was the first one who’d expressed any reservations about the loss of the string.
Epilogue: About a week after investigating all of this, I cut my arm in a softball accident, leading me to purchase a new box of Band-Aids. They were very easy to open.