Neo - Victorian Apology in the Digital Age

by A. Will Brown and Cydney Payton

Victorian British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) famously declared, “Never complain, Never explain.” [1] In America this stoic remark gained political capital as the dictum, “Never apologize, Never explain.” The adage continued to be popular throughout the Atomic Age as a statement of masculine power from a bygone era in American history; it mirrored the intrinsic character of defiance during the Cold War. In the late 1950s it became erroneously linked to the characters of celebrities such as the stalwart moralists Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne. Unapologetic personas of such iconic figures were emulated and revered. In the political arena demands for public accountability from politicians began to dramatically shift in the 1960s when humility became more positively received in the public sphere as criticism of governmental actions rose to protests. This pivotal new age in American history was launched in 1968, an election year where demonstrations against the Vietnam War ended in violent confrontations between police and protestors at the Democratic National Convention, partly as a result Republican Richard Milhous Nixon was elected the 37th President of the United States. With Nixon’s platform to restore law and order a new era of the rhetoric of blame and shame entered American public life.  By the 1970s a global age of U.S. accountability would emerge to the world through ever-widening structures of media as split portraits of Victorian morality of neverness and Neo Victorian morality of eating humble pie which displayed humility underscored with cynicism of neverness. The phrase to eat humble pie would bring together the ontology of umble, a medieval pie of liver, heart, kidney and entrails, with the gravitas of shame. The media responded to this rise in Neo Victorian morality as capital for apologies.

This presidency ended in August of 1974 on national television with Nixon publically resigning from the office of president for his role in the Watergate scandal. In lieu of an apology to the American people the self-ousted leader exclaimed: “I have never been a quitter.” Three years later British journalist David Frost would interview the then-elusive Nixon. Speaking from a comfortable stage set constructed in Nixon’s suburban Pasadena home, Frost would catch Nixon offering an unexpected and emotional apology in the form of anecdote. Nixon told the story of a friend’s apology at a dinner recounting them saying: “I’m sorry, I just hope I haven’t let you down.” He transferred someone else’s apology into his own by conflating his personal reality with the actions of another. While Nixon’s election spearheaded the rise of the Neo Victorian apology, he never truly understood the media’s potential to reframe image. In the Frost broadcast his apology took the form of eating humble pie but was empty of visible contrition.

In this interview with the multimedia specialist Jeff Goodby, who was featured in film Art & Copy (2009) about the advertising industry, we investigate how eating humble pie has become the given tactic of public apologies through public relations and marketing dating to Nixon. Since Nixon the public apology has become a more strategic global practice occasioned to reposition celebrities, politicians, corporations, and even nations. For each of these entities the apology operates as a redaction, erasing perceptions of guilt through offers of shame and contrition. While eating humble pie sits as a form of apology, it is not necessarily a true apology; in contemporary media the apology is both forced upon consumers and simultaneously desired by them, creating a circular relationship between trespassers and those they trespass against.  The Nixon resignation, the first and only in U.S. history, commenced a long-bitter struggle between the senate, congress and media. The Neo Victorian apology, eating humble pie, continues to proliferate with digital technology and surveillance where its use is directly tied to capital production of power and money tied to politicians, corporations, and celebrities.

This interview with Goodby vests the apology as a common facet of today’s Neo Victorian media crazed culture where public apologies are constructed by professionals who are responsible for placement, graphics, styling, set design, and speech writing. The final apologetic act is received in its reproduced form through the lens of photography, press events, video and film clips. Here, the apology can be messaged from the podium to a tweet.



Cydney M. Payton & Will Brown: Apology has existed as a part of the human condition since the Greeks. For our exhibition, we have considered the past 25 years as the beginning of an ‘age of public apology’. Would you agree with this, or would you note a different time frame?

Jeff Goodby: Although public apologies are widely utilized these days, I think they’ve been a staple in the past as well. I think of Teddy Kennedy at Chappaquidick, Douglas MacArthur’s farewell, even Ann Putnam’s at the Salem witch trials in the early 18th century. 

Certainly, the fluidity of media has made public apologies much more numerous and even required of late, though. My brief research uncovered two major trends: apologies for infidelity and apologies for indiscreet Tweets.  They are LEGION. It says something.

CMP & WB: Can you contextualize the rise of the public’s desire for apologies within your work in media culture? What role does surveillance—the constant auditing of life events and actions—play in the rise of such a culture?

JG: Well, as I said, media is so fluid and widely-consumed now that transgressors not only feel a need to say something, but also sense the many channels through which they could do so. As you suggest in your question, the constant auditing of public life certainly adds to the pressure to address things openly and widely. 

The very act of apology creates the hope of salvation today. But how often does it really have that effect? 

CMP & WB: The over use of apologies makes them a lesser tactical threat politically and a more sought-after mediator socially. When apologies are pervasive and launched in forms like sound bites even true remorse fails to be read as such.

Of particular emphasis to our exhibition are the Nixon and Clinton apologies as major culture shaping moments, yet the two were so psychologically and theatrically different. In the Clinton apology televised to the American people, he appeared chagrined, while the famed 1977 interview conducted by David Frost caught Nixon’s shame on camera. Nixon’s “I'm sorry” was an anecdotal recounting of a friend’s apology. Nixon came across as sincerely disappointed in himself. Clinton’s disappointment is masked by disbelief and resentment. While these two presidential moments represent different types of public deception, they also reflect major shifts in cultural mores. Can you analyze these two apologies for us from your perspective? What does the process of shaping images of figures such as Nixon and Clinton look like behind the scenes?

JG: They seem quite different in memory, but they shared something: anger at being caught, exposed, and embarrassed.  Both men are mortified. 

The two lamented events grow more and more different with time, however. 

Clinton’s mistake seems laughable in comparison with an authorized break-in, wiretapping, and dirty tricks.  Yet, he was the one actually impeached by half the Congress.  

CMP & WB: Clinton came of age as a politician on the edge of the digital media culture, perhaps suggesting that he should have known how to take his blows in public. We know from history that Nixon had a love-hate relationship with media. He was a paranoid figure and was not necessarily conditioned to deal with the changing media culture of the late twentieth century. Which of them understood the media better in your opinion? If you were to go back in time, which apology would you choose to craft - Nixon’s or Clinton’s? Why?

JG: Both of them were relative failures in the moment.  But I think that Clinton’s seems more trivial with time and, even though it was perhaps more transparent and less well handled, the triviality has come to excuse it a bit.  Nixon’s was neither successful nor has it garnered much sympathy over time. 

The lesson seems to be: The size of the crime is relevant to the seriousness of the apology.  My Mom could have told you that.

CMP & WB: In ancient Greece, the apology was a form of rhetorical justification. Would you argue that apologies are not always delivered through words as much as images and deeds? How would you build an apologetic campaign for a corporation verses a celebrity? What are the similarities between structuring an apology for the 2009 BP Oil Spill and Tiger Woods (individual tied to corporations) infidelity?

JG: The body language of apologies is just as important as the specifics. Tiger basically disappeared and has never quite recovered. I know that he’s made attempts to deal with his issues publicly and honestly (he is a smart man), but it wasn’t early, detailed, and generous. 

BP’s body language was more generous, but the size of the offense was SO much larger. It was something that affected us all, affected an entire coastal ecosystem. Although they were clearly trying hard to fix things, it was also apparent that there were big screw-ups behind it all. And indeed, that was confirmed with time.  

CMP & WB: As a shaper of popular figures’ and corporations’ media image, how has your approach to your business changed with the advent of Twitter, Facebook and the proliferation of social media? How has an apology intended for mass consumption shifted and changed?

JG: It used to be that we would make a big public statement – a Super Bowl commercial, say, or an ad in The New York Times. It was like a rock lobbed into a pond. You would measure the size of the splash. 

Now, you measure the size of the ripples the splash makes. You have to monitor and attempt to shape the social media after a big event. 

CMP & WB: Do you see the public apology, or a public gesture of remorse or wrongdoing, as a viable means of reconciliation in this climate?  What kind of reception can be expected from a well-executed public apology?

JG: It could be argued that the public apology is still demanded, but is less and less acceptable as a response.  One has to do it; but it has less and less of a forgiving effect. 

CMP & WB: In our research the media remains focused on contemporary public apologies to be called for largely of men. Women are often the intended recipients of public gestures of apologies produced by powerful men based on the ‘face threat’—firing, dismissal, impeachment, etc—of a situation. The degrees of such threats are usually greater for public personal apologies than public official apologies. The fact that apologies are largely a male device can make visible conflicts between genders and their public roles: the image of the abuse of male power against the image of a forgiving, empathetic or resentful other. Even under these dichotomous conditions, the act of a public apology can lead to a repositioning of a newly desired future image for the apologizer. 

Have you ever constructed an apology for a public figure directly? If so please tell us about it. What is the most important tool for shaping public sentiment and public perception?

JG: We ran a very controversial campaign for “got milk?” involving a little-known benefit of milk drinking: it lessens the effects of PMS. We attempted to deal with this humorously, by showing men buying lots of milk for their women during these times. 

The initial reaction was very positive. Networks did stories that found it all funny.  But when it reached social media, it stuck a quite different chord. 

Women were angry about the humor. They were angry about being portrayed as weak and out of control during that time of the month. 

Instead of apologizing, however, we made a website called that actually published all reactions to the campaign, pro and con.  This turned out to be a good, non-confrontational thing to do.  While it didn’t necessarily make women happy with the campaign, it at least openly and honestly aired the complaints about it. People appreciated that.

CMP & WB: What do you think is a better sell: I’m Sorry or I Apologize, and why?

JG: I am not sure there’s that much difference. It’s what comes after this that counts. 

Pick things salient to argument.


Cydney Payton and Will Brown

March 1, 2012

E-Interview with Jeff Goodby, Founding Partner

Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco


 [1] Ralph Keyes, The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006), 35.

Jeff Goodby, featured in the 2009 film Art & Copy is one of two founding partners of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners advertising agency. Goodby, Silverstein’s clients include: Netflix, Milk, Budweiser, e-bay, and Partnership for Drug Free-America among many others. Most notable is their work for ads such as: got milk?, the Budweiser Lizards campaign, Hewlett-Packard, the National Basketball Associations “I Love This Game” slogan, and the E-Trade chimpanzee series—all of which are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

Jeff has served as the president of the Cannes Advertising Festival and as head of the prestigious Titanium Jury. In 2010 Adweek named Jeff and his partner Rick Silverstein as executives of the decade. Goodby graduated from Harvard University, during his time there wrote extensively for the Harvard Lampoon. Among his business pursuits Jeff is also a director, illustrator and printmaker whose work has appeared in Time magazine.