'Patronising' Branson ad leaves Virgin staff steaming

Richard Branson has discovered that poking fun at your staff on national TV isn't much of a tribute...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Not for the first time, publicity-loving Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson is appearing in his own adverts – but this time, it seems to have rather backfired. In the latest Virgin Trains ad, Branson drives around on a refuse cart in an orange donkey jacket, emptying the bins at Glasgow station – complete with heavily-tattooed forearms and blacked-out teeth (note that he didn’t get a haircut, mind). In Branson world, this was a demonstration of his pride in his workforce; to the RMT rail union, it looked like a billionaire patronising the low-paid staff who keep his service going. We’ll leave it to you to decide who’s nearer the mark…

Sir Richard does have form in this area, of course. Over the years, he’s got up to all kinds of jolly japes to earn column inches for his various undertakings (in fact, by his standards, this is relatively tame). However, the RMT certainly isn’t seeing this as another example of Branson’s ‘unique’ marketing genius: General Secretary Bob Crow told the BBC the stunt was ‘patronising in the extreme,’ adding that it ‘say[s] a lot about the attitude of Virgin Trains to our members who work under enormous pressure to make the services tick.’

Not surprisingly, Virgin denied that the ad was patronising, insisting that ‘Sir Richard’s well-known sense of humour’ (you know the one) would just provide extra publicity for its recent West Coast Main Line upgrades (that’s right, the ones that have made weekend travel a nightmare for months and months). So we’re not quite sure why it also released this comment from Sir Richard: ‘I am so proud of all of our Virgin Train people and if dressing up in disgustingly dirty clothes, having my teeth blacked out and getting covered in tattoos was what it took to provide it, I was delighted to oblige.’ Erm, talk us through that logic again?

We’re sure Sir Richard didn’t mean to offend his station staff – he’s got more sense than to bite the hand that feeds him. But this wasn’t a very smart move for such a PR-savvy boss. Why didn’t it occur to anyone at Virgin (or its ad agency) that it might be seen as rather offensive for the boss to be characterising some of his lowest-paid employees as ugly, dirty ragamuffins? Come to think of it, why bother with the make-up at all? Surely the point would have been just as clear – and indeed, much more diplomatically made – without it? Maybe next time he'd be better off staying behind the camera…

In today's bulletin:

Barclays bounces but Lloyds still a loser
Unilever profits hit by cheapskate shoppers
Editor's blog: Advertising in a global meerkat
'Patronising' Branson ad leaves Virgin staff steaming
The dangers of office politeness

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