Hey CommBank, if you want forgiveness for your terrorism comedy start by apologising like you mean it

So how did such a good marketing organisation get it so wrong?

And why is CommBank still getting it wrong now?

Apart from a minimalist apology-that-wasn’t-much-of-an-apology, the bank is now robotically repeating the same line to anyone who comments on its Facebook page: “We accept responsibility for this and we moved quickly to remove this viral video from our YouTube channel. We have tightened our controls as a result of this.”

So how did it unfold?

I came across the video on the company’s YouTube channel on Wednesday night. I struggled to believe what I was seeing. Comedy capers involving suspicious backpacks at London landmarks are too close to home for anyone who had loved ones in the city on the day of the 7/7 bombings.

And I suspect that this is the first place where it went wrong for CommBank.

A declaration of interest: For me it’s personal on a couple of levels.

I still remember every minute of the morning of July 7 2005. Just a day after the excitement of London winning the Olympics, suicide bombers detonated backpacks on tube trains and a bus, and killed 52 civilians. I was many miles away, but like the colleagues around me spent anxious hours waiting for news about people I knew. Since then, I’ve never been able to travel on the Underground without viewing people with backpacks with nervousness. Right now a close relative is working in London in the sort of role that includes checking backpacks.

So it’s hard to come at this one neutrally.

In part it’s about having experienced something. I wasn’t in Australia for the Bali attack. Clearly it was an atrocity, but I probably don’t feel it as rawly as I would if I had been here at the time, and been part of the national experience. The same, I suspect goes for the CommBank team in London – they just didn’t get why this was not something to be making comedy about.

So I wasn’t surprised that soon after we posted a story about it, it began to snowball.

What bothers – and puzzles – me more though is that they still don’t seem to get it.

Hours went by between my original phone call for comment and any sort of response. In part, because many of the senior comms team was asleep in London enjoying the Olympic junket.

And the eventual apology came across as seriously grudging. A bit like that formulation “I apologise if I offended anyone”, which carried the implication “but I don’t think I did anything wrong”.

Here it is in full: “The Commonwealth Bank apologises for the online video released to its YouTube Channel. We acknowledge some concerns were raised and the material was withdrawn this morning.”

For a brand that’s messed up, it was hopelessly inadequate.

Then came the comments from CMO Andy Lark, reported by B&T that the story was “not even newsworthy”.

Although The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Telegraph, The Australian, Fox Sports, The Australian Financial Review, the Courier Mail, Adelaide Now, WA Today, Perth Now, Brisbane Times, Canberra Times,  The Herald Sun, news.com.au, The Launceston Times, Hawkesbury Gazette, Maroondah Weekly, Gloucester Avocate, Moonee Valley Weekly, The Drum UK, Finextra, Macedon Ranges Weekly, Hume Weekly, Penrith Star, Cobar Age, Bombala Times, Monash Weekly, Blacktown Sun, The Transcontinental, Tenterfield Star, Whyalla News and Today Tonight are a small fraction among the newsdesks that disagree.

The puzzling thing is that my personal impression is that Andy Lark is very smart – and has a PR background. I’m an admirer. But I don’t think the brand has got to grips with this. A full – and sincere apology could have turned it into a one day story.

Logically, I know there is little reason to be offended. It was clearly meant lightheartedly. They weren’t glorifying terrorism – they were portraying a silly prank at the expense of a comedy caricature. And yet, fairly or not, I got angry, and clearly many others did too.

The bank is probably being just as logical in its tone that those who are offended are somewhat churlishly overreacting.

And yet, I find myself unable to shake the thought: I’m not forgiving you until you apologise like you fucking mean it.

Tim Burrowes


  1. Another Angle...
    3 Aug 12
    1:12 pm

  2. Tim, great article. Maybe if you had told Andy that the ‘ka ching’ app wasn’t great then you would have had a half decent response. Technology floats his boat, so perhaps try that angle.

  3. steve hurley
    3 Aug 12
    1:31 pm

  4. well said, your closing sentence sums it up

  5. Sydney
    3 Aug 12
    1:31 pm

  6. It wasn’t even that funny… quite a PR risk to take for an unfunny ad.

  7. Lisa Lintern
    3 Aug 12
    1:46 pm

  8. Agree with you Tim. I was surprised by the response given to another media outlet that the piece was ‘unapproved’, something I find hard to believe given the layers of sign-off typically required in financial services marketing and comms.
    in this case a heartfelt, ‘we cocked up big time and we won’t do it again,’ could have killed it for them more quickly.
    It’s better to rip off your own bandaid quickly, than it is to let others slowly peel it away.

  9. Stu
    3 Aug 12
    1:48 pm

  10. I agree with your sentiment.
    I do not believe however that others should be apologetic towards you every time you get offended.
    If we all expected an apology every time we were offended then we would all be very uptight people constantly waiting for apologies.
    Sometimes you just have to shake your head at the morons and move on.

  11. blc1981
    3 Aug 12
    1:49 pm

  12. Agree with you 100% Tim, well said, all of it.

  13. Makes Sense
    3 Aug 12
    1:50 pm

  14. Clearly it’s not the customers or general public that float his boat ….

  15. Bernadette
    3 Aug 12
    1:51 pm

  16. Wowzers! I cannot believe that they produced such an ad. This is unbelievably stupid, and whoever had anything to do this, should be sacked! I was in America during the 9-11 atttacks so the issue of terrorism (and fear) is close to my heart too.

    Plus, why isn’t the head of Corp Comms at this bank not briefed on the videos being uploaded to their YouTube channel? It’s an important comms tool, and one that should be closely monitored (given its potential for disaster).

    Comms needs tighter control over marketing if appears!

    Lastly, I am glad to not be a ComBank customer. If I was, I’d be switching asap!

  17. Courtney
    3 Aug 12
    1:52 pm

  18. Hear Hear. Don’t Let the nuff nuffs who created this campaign, or the space cadets who approved it, off the hook.

  19. Phil Collins
    3 Aug 12
    1:52 pm

  20. Its commerce. If you’re offended, don’t expect an apology, just don’t buy the service.

    And, if we don’t let ourselves (or even annoying brands like CBA) prank at stuff like this, we are further down the path of losing more freedom and innocence.

  21. Eric
    3 Aug 12
    2:04 pm

  22. Hey Tim-
    Thanks for having the BALLS to say this. I couldn’t agree more. We all make mistakes. Whether it’s client side or on the agency side- I’m sure this had to go up the ladder to be approved and not one person on either side ever thought this was in bad taste or was potentially harmful to the brand? That is hard to comprehend in today’s environment. Thanks again.

  23. Darren
    3 Aug 12
    2:05 pm

  24. Jokes about movie massacre… experiential skits that evoke terrorism memories… feminine hygiene ads spurting “vagina” and “discharge” (so to speak)… are we just completely confused where the line is these days… or is the pressure for results so strong that it overrides the failsafes??

  25. Shabbadu
    3 Aug 12
    2:15 pm

  26. I was living in London at the time too, Tim. It was quite surreal. I’m kind of torn in that I agree that they could have been a bit more sincere in their apology – even just for spin – but I also agree with Stu’s point. They’ve done what they’ve done. They’ve responded to criticism how they’ve responded. Surely it’s up to us to judge them on our own set or morals and consider how we interact with the brand from here on?

  27. Alice
    3 Aug 12
    2:20 pm

  28. Cant… replace the A with a U and keep on the T.

    That’s what I think of Comm Bank.

  29. AdGrunt
    3 Aug 12
    2:24 pm

  30. Here’s a simple test:

    If Hamish & Andy won’t touch an idea with a 20 ft pole, then it won’t work better for CommBank.

  31. Bethewind
    3 Aug 12
    2:34 pm

  32. What a shame after all the good work they’ve been doing. You delivered your views beautifully and best line was “I’m not forgiving you until you apologise like you fucking mean it” – am going to copy that one!

  33. Howard
    3 Aug 12
    2:35 pm

  34. I vividly remember my day in London on 7:7 and also that sense of guilty relief getting on a plane back to Aus. I’ve been blinking in disbelief that savvy people working on a major campaign – planned for months – could get it so wrong. Oh, and worse, I somehow found myself apologising on their behalf to my Dad over in the UK. You owe me one big time Commonwealth

  35. Ewen H
    3 Aug 12
    2:40 pm

  36. Tim has summarised my feelings to the as and I must put my hand up that I too have been personally affected. Firstly with the St Marys Axe and then Bishopgate’s bombs in the City of London and then watching my wife’s former colleagues at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London working on patients in the 2007 Bus explosion. I am sure many other Australians have far far more harrowing stories than myself in our society.

    I rang the Commonwealth Bank and asked to speak to a manager yesterday. I am still to hear back from anyone. The responses are flippant and now all the CANT ads are tarnished with the same brush for me. The “Not even newsworthy” is cringe worthy to say the least.

    I have offered my personal side to the story to the Commonwealth and the agency. Just twenty minutes, five minutes each on three theatres of operation, a five minute Q&A and I would be gone with no cost to them. Once again the offer was completely ignored.

    This ad brings Australia back to the ignorant and inglorious days of Barry McKenzie and a Bank very sadly out of touch with International events.

    Let’s hope both the agency and the bank CAN remedy the situation, CAN be humble and CAN listen, and stop being CANTS

  37. Cynic
    3 Aug 12
    2:43 pm

  38. firstly, I think this is an incredibly stupid move by CBA and don’t in anyway condone it.

    The financial services industry is laden with corporate affairs and other “risk and compliance” and legal resources. (One can only imagine the conversations / investigations going on there just now!) What this incident proves, however, is that there is no substitute for common sense and asking yourself the question “how would I feel if I was a cusomter affected by this”?

  39. EK
    3 Aug 12
    2:44 pm

  40. Totally agree with you Tim. Jokes about people dying in a horrific way are not funny nor are they ok – I don’t really care if they are intentional or not. It is still unacceptable to remind people, as a ‘joke’, about lost lives.

    To Stu, I wouldn’t say this is a minor offense – looking at it from another angle … Imagine doing a similar aeroplane stunt in the US – I think we could all imagine the response. Why would a backpack prank in the UK be any different?

    I would also like to remind those at CommBank … you work in a BANK people!!

  41. Cass
    3 Aug 12
    2:49 pm

  42. Darren – why do you need to put the word vagina in inverted commas? Its an anatomical name for goodness sake. How ridiculous that you think female hygiene ads about a perfectly normal bodily function that half the population experiences monthly fall into the same category as an ad about terrorism. Grow up.

    On the topic of the Commbank ad, its definitely in poor taste and I’m surprised to see Commbank drop the ball on this one. Any corporate company that cares about their brand would usually steer far away from content like that. Leave it to the Chaser guys instead!

  43. Kim
    3 Aug 12
    2:55 pm

  44. Well said. I was in Trafalgar Square for the Olympics announcement and was just a few hundred metres away from the following day’s atrocities, trying to get to work. Disgraceful move by Commonwealth Bank.. Shame on them… the rest of the over earnest muddled campaign needs to be thrown out

  45. Local Shopper
    3 Aug 12
    3:13 pm

  46. Tim’s right. It’s insensitive whatever way you look at it. Do the right thing Andy, put a personal face on this. We all fuck up once in a while

  47. David Micallef
    3 Aug 12
    3:45 pm

  48. Tim, I’m with you on this one. This ad is just stupid and insensitive.

    I was working in London at the time of the bombings and the impact that the tragedy had on the city is no laughing matter. I still remember the days, weeks and months after where you were constantly on guard around anyone in the Tube.

    Bad job CBA, I think your marketing guys need some ethics training.

  49. Dave
    3 Aug 12
    3:46 pm

  50. “I’m not forgiving you until you apologise like you fucking mean it” I disagree!
    I’m not forgiving you CBA idiots at all! what a moronic thing to do and don’t bother apologising” There is one thing to bring new business to money hungry bankers but to make people suffer from your frigin stupid ways. GO CBA IDIOTS! Hey use this as your new campaign. IDIOTS!

  51. Worst campaign 2012
    3 Aug 12
    9:41 pm

  52. Surely heads should roll at M&C Saatchi and CBA for this f#ck up? CBA sure know how to go into damage control… NOT!

  53. Juvenile
    3 Aug 12
    10:09 pm

  54. and to think I got roundly criticised coz I wanted to do a Bomb Squad radio ad for NRMA’s Vehicle Inspection Unit

  55. Juvenile
    3 Aug 12
    10:10 pm

    back in the day that is

  57. Confused
    4 Aug 12
    7:31 am

  58. Didn’t CBA develop a specific strategy to engage Mumbrella on the launch of this campaign? A big jigsaw? Clearly they only want a one way conversation.

    After sharing their toys they expected loyalty from you.

    I bet they’re cranky you even bought this video to our attention in the first place. Maybe that’s why you’re getting no response now.

  59. Dannyboi
    4 Aug 12
    8:22 am

  60. A more lengthy apology will be cannon fodder for more coverage.

    So, sadly, don’t hold your breath.

  61. Julian Ward
    4 Aug 12
    12:30 pm

  62. Tim, I support this opinion piece 100%, as I am sure many do. This is unbelievable. Brand damaging. More importantly, people damaging, due to the insensitivities. So much so, that WAS initially went to comment on it in our own channels and hesitated, thinking it must be a set up, an ambush plant by someone else. Wow.
    We will be running analytics on the fall out….

  63. David
    4 Aug 12
    4:28 pm

  64. Wholeheartedly agree Tim.

    Inexcusable action by any responsible stakeholder, no matter who or what the brand.

    Whether the brand campaign was going to provide any longer run success or differentiation (and I, for one, don’t believe banks can) is now totally irrelevant and the only right course of action for the bank – as the lead stakeholder – to roll out an apology campaign to rival any previously run.

    It’s very easy and doesn’t need a PR agency to manage the crisis either.

  65. Having a lark
    5 Aug 12
    12:57 pm

  66. I don’t think CBA really care if you “forgive them”. Only damage is Lark is being hammered on mumbrella after months of positive spin and conference appearances.

  67. Dean
    5 Aug 12
    10:29 pm

  68. You admire Andy Lark? For approving this? For his groundbreaking CAN´T campaign? For not taking any responsibility? LOL

  69. Mick A
    6 Aug 12
    10:01 am

  70. What a beat up. Us advertising tossers get so caught up in what we do and actually think it means something. We’re not saving lives. The ad is harmless. It’s not good, it’s not funny, it’s not anything more than a stupid ad. I was in london for the terrorism…so what. This is really petty. Tim, you didn’t get the apology you thought you should, didn’t get the personal touch because you are who again? Wow…arrogant or what.
    This is not going to hurt CBA one little bit. I can’t believe they didn’t return your call Tim…you should never ever forgive them. You show em…

  71. Og Monster
    6 Aug 12
    10:30 am

  72. @ Mick T

    You are an example of 75% of adland. (You couldn’t give a flying fck about society.) Why cant you help others? If I saw you lying on the ground with your legs blown off, would you just want me to walk past and ignore you Mick?

    Are you enjoying the Olympics? Enjoying the Australian success? Get used to it. Fast food is marketed harder here than anywhere on earth. Well, maybe not middle America “USA, USA, USA”, nor the 3rd world where smoking ad’s still get the nod…

    Our sports are all partnered up with fried chicken, burgers and soda.

    This nation used to be the sporting pin up. Now it is full of gluttons. Adland, of course, helps drive the cravings.

    Can the intellect of a nation be based on the songs belted out at sporting events? Our un-original: “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” will be answered with “Oink, Oink, Oink” if we are not careful!

    Start giving a sh1t Mick – you might make a difference in a positive way maaaaaaaaaate.


  73. mumbrella
    6 Aug 12
    10:34 am

  74. Hi Mick A,

    I think you’ve got slightly the wrong end of the stick. The call was returned with the statement I’ve published above.


    Tim – Mumbrella

  75. Craig
    6 Aug 12
    10:38 am

  76. Insensitive, uncaring and poor recovery – that doesn’t only describe the Commonwealth Bank in the finance industry.

    All the big banks don’t give a stuff about their customers because Australian regulation works in their favour to prevent any of the minnows growing large enough to threaten them.

    We have a government-facilitated banking cartel in Australia and no-one in politics really cares, so long as our economy is resillient to international recessions.

    So don’t expect good marketing from big Aussie banks – Comms to them is simply ticking boxes to trade a few customers between then and keep the leakage to smaller players to a minimum. They play a defensive strategy, not an offensive one.

  77. Mildly amused
    6 Aug 12
    11:56 am

  78. Not sure why my original comment is still awaiting moderation… Anyhoo this is off topic but if you want more grist for the mill, just found this: https://www.startwithus.com.au/goalography/default.aspx#Financial-Nation-OwnAHome

    Ostensibly “Goalography is updated in real time so you can see the changing nature of our nation’s dreams. Videos talking to real Australians offer further insight into what many people hope to achieve in 2012.”

    The videos are very polished and the twitter hashtag #CBAStart which *looks* like a feed doesn’t seem to exist, content seems to be on a loop…

  79. thomas
    6 Aug 12
    7:32 pm

  80. Move along people. There’s nothing to see here. Yup it was crass and dumb, but let it go. I too can speak to being in London when the bombing occurred. I’m more aghast than out-raged. We don’t need an apology. We just need to move on. There’s no big story here from what I can tell.

  81. Sam
    7 Aug 12
    1:27 pm

  82. This whole campaign is a massive fail. Not only does it associate the bank with the word Can’t, it actually also evokes the word C*nt which is hilarious.

  83. Ralph
    7 Aug 12
    1:52 pm

  84. Sorry I stopped reading after the first sentence: “So how did such a good marketing organisation get it so wrong?”

    As a marketing organisation, they’re not good. Sure, they have plenty of money to buy plenty of media space and keep their profile out there. But really, are they ‘good’?

    I’ll tell you why they’re not good, because their customers are their shareholders, not the people who hold their credit cards, home loans or savings accounts. Those people are there to be milked. CBA is an arrogant organisation who has lost its way and is driven by greed.

  85. zzzz
    9 Aug 12
    1:27 pm

  86. nice one ralph! marketing organisation my arse. Big, bloated lazy and full of c*nts – cannot remember them doing anything vaguely innovative, interesting or engaging. reckon they have a few dollars to spend though!

  87. CecR
    12 Aug 12
    10:38 pm

  88. Their whole Olympic CAN’T campaign was in poor taste.