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Will Toyota’s TV apology ad help?

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Kai Ryssdal: On to the rest of the news. Toyota continues to have lots of explaining to do about its recalls. But before the explaining, the company is doing some apologizing. So we asked Rico Gagliano to look into the history of corporate mea culpas to see how Toyota might stack up.

RICO GAGLIANO: Toyota’s ad opens with shots of happy Toyota owners through the years and segues into shots of a modern production line.

TOYOTA AD: In recent days, our company hasn’t been living up to the standards that you’ve come to expect from us.

The ad’s being broadcast everywhere, just about all the time. But in the 1980s and ’90s, apologies like these were rare. So says Kit Yarrow. She’s a psychology and marketing professor at Golden Gate University.

KIT YARROW: There’s such a fear of lawsuits that I think actually a lot of CEOs and a lot of companies might liked to have apologized, but were counseled against it.

But with the Internet making it easy for angry consumers to vent, silence has become deadly for corporations.

Gene Grabowski is with Levick Strategic Communications. And he recalls the 2008 case of Westland/Hallmark: the biggest beef recall in history.

GENE GRABOWSKI: When they did apologize it was too late. I mean, they didn’t speak up publicly until they were testifying before Congress, and the company went out of business.

So that’s how not to say I’m sorry. A more successful example? Mattel. Back in 2007 they recalled unsafe toys.

CEO Bob Eckert posted a personal apology online.

BOB ECKERT: As a parent of four children myself, I know that absolutely nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of children.

But Golden Gate University’s Kit Yarrow says Toyota’s apology lacks Mattel’s punch.

YARROW: It’s a very emotional ad with the music and tone of voice and historical pictures. But ultimately what we don’t have is a person taking responsibility and saying what went wrong.

If she’s right, the ad’s creators may be preparing an apology to Toyota.

I’m Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.

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