A strategy for marketing during solemn times: Don’t2013-09-12
Yesterday started with a heart-stopping moment. Not quite awake, I turned on the news to see 9/11 coverage. Not a somber report on the anniversary, but the actual coverage from that awful day. At 6 a.m. yesterday, I watched the coverage from 6 a.m. 12 years ago. It was an abrupt and powerful reminder of all we experienced and all we lost.
It went downhill from there.
As the day wore on, I saw one after another misfire from brands commemorating the anniversary. Reports came out of Marketwatch, AdAge and Digiday of noteworthy blunders. There was AT&T’s tweet, simply: Never Forget, accompanied by a link to an image of a hand holding a smartphone. On the screen, a photo of the Twin Towers memorial light beams. Behind the phone, the current New York skyline at night. It’s not a bad image.
But smartphones and wireless services are what AT&T sells, so the tribute is tainted even if it’s well-executed. A lot of people were offended. AT&T apologized. All in all, what was already bound to be a difficult day got worse for AT&T. Marriott didn’t fare much better. Someone at one of Marriott’s hotels, on his or her own initiative, displayed a sign offering free mini-muffins for 30 minutes “in remembrance of those we lost on 9/11.” A guest shot a picture of the sign, shared it on Twitter, and there was more fodder for outrage. Marriott didn’t help by responding with a statement so clearly filtered through the legal department.
There were worse transgressions that, by the luck of the draw, didn’t attract the same kind of attention. Scrolling through some of the more common 9/11 hashtags—#NeverForget, #Sept11 and #September 11—I found a tweet from FCWT Golf that was exploitative on a whole different level: “TODAY ONLY—use the coupon code REMEMBER by September 11 and save $15 on membership. Because we will never forget.” One of the few responses implored the organization not to repeat the offer next year; another labeled it shameless.
Yet, like many others, it never spread far enough to get the kind of attention AT&T and Marriott got. The fact that many of the questionable messages were tweeted by companies that aren’t household names might have something to do with it, but then again, Tumbledown Trails, a golf course in Wisconsin, has offered nine holes for $9.11 for the last three years, but only this year did it go viral. Like I say, luck of the draw.
Which leads you to wonder: Why risk it?
That advice was freely given by a lot of observers yesterday. Notably, the Atlantic published an article by Derek Thompson under the headline, 1 Simple Rule for Advertising on 9/11. The article begins: “Don’t do it. That’s the rule. So simple.”
I also caught this scrolling by, from the always-interested Olivier Blanchard:
And yet they did. Best Buy and Lowe’s. Macy’s and Smith & Wesson. Sprint and Applebee’s. You would think someone would remind them of the public scolding heaped upon brands in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. Some slid by unnoticed. Others earned a few contemptuous retweets but otherwise escaped unscathed. But that’s just the luck of the draw.
Many of the tweets were undoubtedly heartfelt and sincere. CEOs, presidents, boards, CMOs and social media managers at big companies are just as moved by 9/11 as anybody else. You have to admire the desire to express the collective grief of all of a company’s employees, to make a gesture of solidarity on their behalf.
The problem is, there’s bound to be someone who takes exception, who construes it as a crass, commercial exploitation of a national day of grieving. Whether their view goes viral is the luck of the draw.
How else do you explain almost every sports team in the country joining in the memorializing, but only the Lakers taking heat? (The image of Kobe Bryant inspires contempt from a lot of people on the best of days.) Sports teams, as long as they do it right, seem to be exempt from the rule. Sports already provide a communal gathering place. Moments of silence at a ballgame can be moving and tributes after terrible events can be heart wrenching. Thousands of people coming together to watch a ball game can be a healing experience. The team’s tweeted tributes most likely strike fans as part of that.
Media companies are also exempt. Hundreds of newspapers, TV stations, cable networks and radio stations tweeted, Facebook’d and Instagram’d tributes without repercussion. After all, they covered 9/11, so they have a genuine stake in it.
And celebrities of all types were taken at face value for what they shared. They may be famous, but they’re also real people, not corporate entities. (Some are corporate entities, too, but they’re still real people.)
For the most part, public disapproval is focused on companies that sell stuff and the places that sell them. Those companies should follow Derek Thompson’s advice, resist temptation, and just shut up. Odds are, nobody would have held any of their feet to the fire for refraining from saying anything for just one day.
There is a case for going ahead and publishing during national grieving that goes like this: If we don’t say anything, we’ll be seen as uncaring and insensitive. I didn’t read any criticisms of companies that said nothing, though, and even if that’s a genuine risk, it’s nowhere near as risky as the possibility of being held up as a pariah. Don’t do it. Don’t. Do. It.
There is one way a company can demonstrate its employees’ aggregate respect: let employees do it. They will anyway, of course, and their profiles routinely include the name of their employer. The most common characteristic of companies that experience online crises is untrained employees unguided by clear, well-communicated policies. Train them and make sure they know the guidelines. Then let them be themselves and they’ll do a company proud.
If a critic chastises a company for its silence, engaged employees could well come to its defense, talking about internal remembrances, moments of silence or other tributes. In any case, a company that chooses to keep its public channels respectfully quiet won’t be fodder for The Atlantic, AdAge or Digiday.