CVS Takes Shortcut to Reap PR Rewards

After being skewered by Harper's Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast, the notorious "Boss" Tweed was reputed to have remarked, "Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!" The cartoons derided his shenanigans and helped lead to his ultimate downfall.

In today's modern world, newspapers don't have nearly the circulation or the clout they once did, and nowadays when someone wants to mock the rich and powerful, they take to Twitter and Facebook to deliver uproarious bon mots.

CVS Caremark (NYSE: CVS  ) was the latest target of withering social media mockery after commentary over its ridiculously long receipts, sometimes several feet in length -- even for the purchase of a single item -- gained traction following coverage by Huffington Post and Fast Company. Although The Wall Street Journal had covered the case of the laughably long receipts as far back as 2009, the Twitterverse lit up recently with comments, shared experiences, and photos of people posing with their looong receipts.

Unlike Boss Tweed, who was eventually dethroned, CVS looks like it's going to come out on top of this PR faux pas. For one thing, since it's a bit of mostly nonsensical, good-natured ribbing, it's not as though the pharmacy's reputation is at risk of being tarnished (though it risks the ire of Greenpeace over the wanton destruction of trees). And considering others have been accused of having their receipts go on for ridiculous lengths, too, including Sears Holdings' Kmart and rival Walgreen's Duane Reade, it's not an isolated occurrence, though CVS may be the most extreme culprit.

Yet Home Depot also publishes some page-turners at its registers, including long sections on feedback with a chance to win $5,000 gift cards, written in both English and Spanish. 

Perhaps working most in its favor is that the incident also amounts to bucket loads of free publicity. Although the receipts go to absurd lengths, their purpose is to provide customers with discount coupons to help them save money, which people now realize they can do if they join CVS' ExtraCare rewards program.

Although the pharmacy initially defended its process, it wisely chose instead to join in on the fun on its Facebook page and humorously noted it had "gone LONG on savings." In response to consumer preferences, though, it also said it was reducing the length of its receipt length by as much as 25% and had initiated a new "send to card" feature that will enable shoppers to still get discounts, but through their rewards card.

It was the right move, the right tone, and the right response, and though CVS could have taken crib notes from Shakespeare when he wrote "brevity is the soul of wit," it remains a short story about how social media can effect change.


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