The Fine Line of Using a Tragedy in Marketing

Faculty Member Andrew StephenAs we all know, yesterday was the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Although many years have now passed, it remains an important day for solemn reflection and remembrance.

American Express TweetThis year, however, many brands seemed to be trying to jump on the 9/11 “bandwagon” in social media. Most of what I saw of brands in my own Facebook and Twitter feeds was reasonable and respectful. American Express (which, incidentally, has its headquarters across the street from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan), posted a simple tweet saying “9/11/2011 #neverforget” with a picture of a heart and the new One World Trade Center tower. Delta Air Lines took a similar approach, saying in a tweet “12 years ago our country was changed forever, but today we stand strong and resilient in our unity. #Honor 911.”

Delta Tweet

While many companies didn’t make reference to 9/11 in their social media content yesterday, most of those that did (at least from what I saw), did a good job of setting an appropriate tone. They walked a fine line, however, and there were, of course, some companies that didn’t get it right. 

AT&T TweetOne of the ill-conceived social media posts (again, a tweet) came from AT&T. They posted a tweet with a picture of the Tribute in Light (the two light beams that are shone into the sky on 9/11 from Ground Zero) on a smartphone that a hand is holding up. They received immediate backlash for this and were criticized for using the 9/11 remembrance as an opportunity to sell more smartphones.

Another misstep came from the NBA team, Los Angeles Lakers. They posted a photo on Twitter of Kobe Bryant taken back in 2001 with the text #NEVERFORGET superimposed on the image. The problem with this, according to the Twitter backlash, was that it wasn’t clear that it was about 9/11 and instead could have been interpreted as a parody in which the Lakers are suggesting that their fans “never forget” Kobe’s afro hairstyle at the time. It didn’t help that the look of the image, including the font used for the hashtag on the photo, looked a bit too much like the type of “meme” you would see on a website devoted to funny pictures of kittens and puppies.

LA Lakers TweetDid AT&T and the Lakers intend to make these mistakes? Of course not. Were their social media content plans for 9/11/13 poorly conceived and not thought through? I’d say so. This highlights the perils of bandwagon-jumping social media content plans. We know that lots of companies are doing this nowadays, because they want their content to be “relevant.” But they have to walk a fine line on the best of days. And on days like 9/11, they need to be ultra cautious. And if they cannot be (or they feel compelled to always be selling products, seemingly like AT&T), then perhaps their social media content teams can take such a day off.

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About Andrew Stephen

Andrew Stephen is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration and Katz Fellow in Marketing at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh. Prior to joining the University of Pittsburgh, Andrew was Assistant Professor of Marketing at INSEAD and has also taught at Columbia Business School. Andrew has a PhD in Marketing (with Distinction) and an MPhil from Columbia University. Andrew is a recognized expert on social media and digital marketing, and teaches social media marketing at Pitt in the MBA and undergraduate programs. He has worked with companies such as American Express, Colgate-Palmolive, Delta Air Lines, Dynamic Logic, Google, Kantar, Publicis, Sanofi Pasteur, and WPP, and is on the advisory boards of a number of digital/social media startups. At Katz, Professor Stephen teaches digital marketing and social media marketing and communications to MBAs and executives.

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