Why Can’t Brands Leave 9/11 Alone?


Note: The above image is not a real advertisement for Subway, but a shockingly predictive joke that The Onion posted last week.  Our satire now becomes reality in seven days, not thirty years.

As you’re no doubt aware, today marks the twelfth anniversary of the horribly tragic September 11 attacks. I’m sure that I don’t need to go into detail about what made that day significant, but one thing that routinely shocks me is how cavalier brands and organizations have become in adopting the date for tasteless self-promoting. Every year, we see more and more examples of cringe-worthy tweets, advertisements capitalizing on the event, or PR disasters conducted in honor of 9/11. This year was probably the worst offender to date.

The following tweet from AT&T was posted this morning. Naturally, fans objected to the cellular service provider using the attacks to showcase their new Blackberry phone. AT&T has since offered an apology and removed the tweet.

But it wasn’t just AT&T that thoughtlessly jumped into the conversation today. This Lakers tweet not only had a bizarre photo featured, but also faced public backlash for it’s insensitivity. They literally made Kobe Bryant the face of a national tragedy.

Of course, not every offensive tweet that went out today was done on purpose. This sponsored tweet, albeit a little weird without context of the film, happened to fall on the wrong day. Unfortunately, that excuse provides little solace to Flixster, who provides a good reminder to always check the dates that your paid advertising will run on.

But all of these pale in comparison to what has to be the worst offender, Tumbledown Trails golf course. In honor of 9/11, the golf course offered a coupon to customers that would allow them to play a 9 hole golf course for $9.11.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, when the public lashed out and the story gained national traction, Tumbledown Trails offered insincere half-apologies (we’re sorry YOU were offended),:

We would first like to apologize to everyone that we have upset or feels we have disrespected in anyway. By no means did we mean to do this. 
Here is what we will do this Wednesday 9-11;
we will still let all that have tee times booked play for the previous rates we posted.
Then for all other golf that day we would like to donate the $ difference between our normal rate and the previous price for the day to the 9/11 Memorial.
We hope that everyone will now see this as a positive as we really meant it to be. Again we do sincerely apologize for offending anyone & hope that you do accept our sincere apology. 

When people were unsatisfied with that statement, the golf course dug a deeper hole with another release. And then another. Now they’ve removed their Facebook page, and closed down their course due to alleged threats.

I have to confess that I didn’t have anything planned for our company page today.  However, since I work for an emergency air ambulance company, and we work alongside fire departments and EMS crews, I felt the pressure to acknowledge the date.  I ended up finding a beautiful shot of the memorial at night (no violent “moment of impact”  photos like I inexplicably saw on a chiropractic’s Facebook page this morning), with a brief comment about how we remember the bravery of the emergency personnel crew. There was no corporate logo on display, no special 9/11 sale, and we weren’t featuring our services or products. And here’s the thing: even with all of that excluded, I still agonized about addressing it. I’m not trying to promote myself or what I did, because I honestly am still debating about whether it was even a good idea. But the problem is that I felt the pressure from my peers, our competitors, and social media itself to address it, like I would if this was a national holiday and I had nothing planned.

As marketers, social media managers, and public relations professionals, we have to stop piggybacking on tragedies in an effort to show how much we care or to promote ourselves. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve turned tragedies into something about us and our brands. Far too often, our industry is accused as being full of shallow spin doctors, and these actions prove our critics right. It may be questionable whether it’s okay if you’re in an industry that’s involved in some capacity, or your business was near the disaster. But when you’re tracking the shares and reach of an image that features a corporate logo over the trade center towers, you’re no longer mourning. And judging by today’s reactions to these promotions, tweets, and mini-muffin offers, the public is no longer buying it. Go to any of the above’s social media sites, and you’ll see that their managers are having a very long day handling all of the angry responses.

My hope is that this will serve as a reminder for us to take the high road, and that next year we won’t see as many offenders. The cynic in me wonders if things will get worse for awhile before we find the next tragedy to cling to. At what point is a brand trying to offer a heartfelt reminder, and when is it simply trying to cash in by jumping into a trending topic? Will it only continue to get worse the further removed we become? As always, please leave your thoughts below.

6 comments on “Why Can’t Brands Leave 9/11 Alone?

  1. Great Blog Steven! Respectful.

  2. Interesting perspective. I hadn’t realized this was happening (I’m not too observant, obviously), but I can definitely see your point. Let’s hope companies realize how ridiculous (and disrespectful) this is.

  3. Great Post!

    Amazingly, the truthers have taken over the event and ironically there is no truth to their buffoonery either. 2 million bikers herd on in to D.C. to make a stand against a handful of Muslims that dwindled from a “Million Man March” to about a few dozen standing aimlessly around. A battle royale! Swine on swine.

    The bikers represent the Christian right? Patriots? Or, are they just trying to sell earplugs by some designer?

    The Egyptian crisis…a million man march there, too?

    Terry Jones was busted for carting a smoker and kerosene around. Someone has to be the scape goat for the military incompetence. He’ll do. But, hey…as long as the Christians think porn is okay he’ll stand with the bikers any day of the week. They do a lot of charity work.

    The commercialism of Christmas is a good comparison I think.

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