The New Face of Big Business: You

"The performances are swell and you believe that these people are speaking from their hearts and all that, but there's no way to watch these ads without concluding, 'Yes, we're still here but not for very long,' which does Saturn no good," said Bob Garfield, an advertising critic for the magazine Advertising Age.

Garfield reserves stiffer criticism for oil and chemical companies, which have featured employees in ads long before the latest recession.

"These are just so transparently manipulative and disingenuous that they're doing themselves no good by putting out this PR fluff," he said. "The majority of people cannot be fooled by what I believe are transparently disingenuous claims to folksy do-gooderness."

Exxon Scientists Talk Fuel Efficiency

Long at odds with environmental groups and others, oil and chemical companies have responded by "misrepresenting the scale and scope" of their public relations-friendly efforts while downplaying less popular pursuits, Garfield said.

"I wish I had a dollar for every company that put an employee in a lab coat and showed them improving crop yields worldwide ... while glossing over the fact that they're mainly covering the world with Saran Wrap."

Amid concerns about skyrocketing oil prices last year, oil giant Exxon Mobil began a new campaign featuring scientists discussing new technologies designed to increase fuel efficiency.

Company spokesman Alan Jeffers said that while it was difficult to quantify what percentage of the corporation's 80,000 employees were working on the initiatives described in the commercials, Exxon has devoted "a significant effort around energy efficiency."

Jeffers also said the company hasn't tried to hide the fact that the majority of its work centers on oil and gas.

"We acknowledge that all of the energy sources will be very important in meeting the energy challenges the world faces," he said.

Inspiring Employees

Bringing ordinary employees into the promotional fold doesn't always mean big advertising campaigns.

Employees who believe in their company's products can have a substantial effect on sales just through word of mouth, said Steve Mooney, a managing director at the marketing firm Jack Morton Worldwide.

"Once you've got somebody passionate about a brand, they'll recommend it 17, 18 times; that becomes a geometric multiplier by which word of mouth spreads very quickly," he said.

Mooney's firm has worked with various corporate giants, including Bank of America and Verizon, to inspire their employees to become advocates for their brands, known in marketing circles as "brand passionates."

"They'll push harder, talk about it more and really affect the strength of your brand," he said.

The goal is also to boost employee morale within an organization, he said, which can improve performance and lower turnover.

If a company can't get its employees excited about its products, experts say, it'll be that much harder to appeal to the public.

Dezenhall said he expects to see more companies rolling out employee-centered campaigns. "There seems to be an undercurrent of the need to reassure people that the everyday person is being factored in," he said.

That contrasts with years ago, he added, when "you could really hype the glamour."

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