What We Learn From Bank of America's YouTube Gaffe

And How Others Can Avoid Such Ghastly Brand Embarrassments

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It is even better
Now that we're the same
Two great companies come together
Now MBNA is BofA...


You can probably take it from there, but it should be pointed out that the chorus included the phrase "Higher Standards."
Image
Ethan Chandler, a Bank of America banking center manager in Manhattan, performs at the unveiling of the Bank of America/MBNA merger. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.


YouTube sensation
If you don't know the refrain by now then you've perhaps decided that an internet connection is not for you. But on the basis that some folks might be even slower than me -- I only caught up to this latest YouTube sensation just before Thanksgiving -- permit me a short explanation.

These are the U2-appropriated lyrics of Ethan Chandler's "One (Bank)," the bank manager's ode to Bank of America's merger with credit-card issuer MBNA. He performed them live at the corporate unveiling of said union. He and his cohort, another BofA employee, were evidently filmed by some camera-toting exec and broadcast on the internet.

Deep-seated embarrassment
If you are one of the six people who haven't seen it, let me be the first to tell you: This is more toe-curlingly cringe-worthy than anything David Brent did on "The Office." Even though you're not the one whipping yourself into a euphoric frenzy over a bank's "core values," you'll feel a deep-seated embarrassment unparalleled since you were caught in flagrante by your girlfriend's father.

By the time I saw it, there were dozens of sites hosting this corporate-pep-rally peep show, tens of millions had viewed it and thousands had posted their comments, mostly expressions of deep disgust.

Of course, this thing is no oil slick or embezzlement on the image-crisis scale. It's not like anyone is going to switch bank accounts simply because the folks at HQ sipped too much of their own Kool-Aid.

The new reality
Yet it does serve as a timely reminder that, these days, "what's small can turn big, and what's inside is out," as Edelman's blog expert (and our columnist) Steve Rubel put it to me. Your company, your party, your computer's contents are tomorrow's global desktop distractions. Jud Branam of MS&L Digital puts it this way: "While this stuff has always gotten out, it will happen more quickly, systematically and with greater effect. Internal rallying-cry stuff should be looked at from the standpoint: 'How will we respond when this hits YouTube?"'

As bloggers paint their employers' worst sides, and memos and videos leak out, many companies batten down the hatches, employing ever more devious (can anyone say HP?) and strong-arm PR, HR and security tactics to stem the flow of information. That, of course, is treating the symptom rather than the cause.

For those who find themselves tried in the court of internet opinion, it would be more valuable to examine the source of the problem. It's hard to imagine the board of BofA asking, "Why are they laughing at us?" Classic corporate machismo calls for senior officers to rattle on regardless, paying little heed to the little man. But what if they did, and what if some foolhardy underling gave them a straight answer: "Sirs, we are being mocked because we live in an ivory tower in which we think consumers care about our 'Higher Standards' catchline. My guess is they'd probably rather we killed that crap and instead promised to stop charging them $2 to get their own money out of an ATM."

Mirror to corporate America
I know, I'm a dreamer, but the internet could be such a wonderful mirror to corporate America. And not just when it comes to those ghastly rah-rah internal meetings, either. Out there they've got no idea what it means to live on the "Coke side of life," and they're not inviting anyone around for a "King of beers." The days when BS paid off are running out, and America's marketers need to communicate with audiences in an authentic and honest manner. If they don't, many more will suffer through the reality check that is trial by YouTube.
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