Bone-Chilling Brand Blunders

Posted October 14, 2015, under Ad Absurdum

Between the Internet giving everyone a voice and increased regulatory attention, it is easier than ever to effectively call attention to corporate shenanigans. This can turn into an absolute nightmare for these complacent, fat giants, which we as consumers can only see as a net win for humanity. And the last few years have seen something of a watershed in corporate scandals.

* Don’t get us wrong: We absolutely believe that companies with worthwhile products or services should be successful and profitable — but it should be in direct proportion to the quality of service they deliver, not the creative ways they can stick it to people.


Let’s get the latest and most obvious one out of the way first: It recently came to light that the German automaker had tried to subvert Clean Air laws. Starting as early as 2008, VW vehicles were programmed to detect when they were being tested for emissions, and artificially reduce the car’s emissions so as to pass the test. The test results allowed VW to not only sell their cars in the U.S., but also to collect various accolades and awards, including the 2009 Green Car of the Year Award, as well as subsidies and tax breaks.

In actual practice (as tested by professors and students at West Virginia University), nitrogen oxide emissions on some vehicles were up to 40 times greater than allowed by U.S. regulations.

We’re disappointed in you.

In the first day after the scandal broke, VW’s stock value dropped 20%. The CEO eventually stepped down, although he still blames “the terrible mistakes of a few people” rather than truly taking responsibility. His attempt at face-saving was almost immediately repudiated by the revelation of additional emission-regulating software in their 2016 models. At least now they’re fessing up in advance.

Despite assurances from the new CEO, Volkswagen continues to reel from the loss of consumer confidence, as shown in the continued plunge of stock value, plus the more than $7 billion they pledged to fix their “terrible mistake” — and that’s not even counting the potential $18 billion in fines they could face from U.S. regulators alone.

Notice this being the polar opposite of making a profit.


The cable sector is objectively terrible from nearly every standpoint. In part because of the high cost of creating infrastructure, there are really only a few corporations that can even afford to offer the service; in many areas, there is only one option. This was even admitted to by a Comcast executive, while defending a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable (one of Comcast’s only competitors). He said that currently there is no overlap in the respective companies’ “territories.”

Doesn’t that sound a little weird? “Territories”? We mean, dealing with cable companies is bad enough without it turning into the Jets and the Sharks.

If only they would solve problems with dance fights.

Having a near-monopoly on broad swathes of the countryside has had pretty much the effect you’d expect: Comcast is legendary in its terrible service. It has a worse customer service rating than the Internal Revenue Service. Let that sink in for a moment. We’ll wait.

Things exploded in 2014, starting with tech journalist Ryan Block recording a conversation wherein he tried to cancel his service. That recording lasted eight minutes, but the actual call went on for quite a bit longer, with the service rep refusing to cancel service and pressing Block for his reasons for canceling.

It would be one thing if the recording were simply one overzealous employee. But then it came to light that the official Comcast script was to make every effort to retain a dissatisfied customer — and we do mean every effort. Call center employees were given quotas for retention, and their pay could be affected if they let someone cancel their service. In fact, they’re not called “customer service reps.” They’re called “retention specialists.”

That was the tip of the iceberg. Other people started recording their service calls, with similarly horrifying results. Then the reps — excuse us, “retention specialists” — struck back. Customers who had been having various difficulties with Comcast’s service started getting bills on which their names were replaced with obscenities, such as one man dubbed “A**hole Brown” (redaction ours).

All of these stories and more have gone viral, repeatedly. “Criticism of Comcast” has its own Wikipedia page, which has even more horrific misdeeds by the company. Some of these are fairly technical, but common themes are refusals to cancel service, fix existing service, bill fairly, and provide unfettered Internet connections.

In response to all the negative publicity, Comcast has been struggling to repair its public image, with corporate reshuffling and rewrites to the service rep handbook — but what’s really scary is the arrant greed and irresponsibility that got the company into hot water in the first place.

The Subway Monster

While the earlier examples have been monstrous enough in their own corporate misconducty way, this one features a true monster.

The news broke earlier this year, and in case you missed it, the short version is this: You might remember that guy from around the turn of the century, who lost a bunch of weight by eating Subway sandwiches? His name was Jared Fogle, and he may be skinny, but he’s still a big, fat bastard.

Why? In July, the former “Subway guy” was under federal investigation for possession of child pornography. A month later, he entered into a plea deal where he would plead guilty to one count of distribution and receipt of kiddie porn, and one count of “travel to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor.” Meaning, the (then married) dude in his late 30s went to New York to get busy with a 17-year-old girl. That’s just what he’s admitting to; the allegations go way beyond that.

Retroactively making Subway’s slogan the creepiest thing ever.

Fogle will be sentenced later this year, but the possibility of decades in prison is very real, quite in addition to the restitution he will likely have to pay to his seventeen victims. It won’t make up for what he did — what could? — but at least he will be behind bars and forever marked as a sex offender.

To their credit, Subway disavowed the living hell out of Fogle on literally the day that he was raided by the FBI. They immediately wiped all mentions of him from their website, and shortly after announced on Twitter that they had cut all ties with the pervert. It was corporate damage control done right, for a change.

Shortcuts and aggressive sales tactics might seem like a great way to make a quick buck, but at the end of the day, corporate misconduct — or even the hidden misdeeds of a spokescritter — can do nothing but damage to a brand. All the advertising in the world can’t save a company with a broken culture of greed over service. The world we live in right now is proof enough of that.

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