5 Corporations That Used a National Tragedy to Sell You Something


More often than not, social media marketing is all about gathering attention, in the now, as much as possible. After all, all of the metrics Facebook makes available to track success of a page revolve around likes, views, and shares. Sometimes, though, that preoccupation with attention gets in the way of building a relationship. Marketing attempts tied to tragedies are the prime example of that mistake.

Despite a multitude of marketing columnists and professionals all over the internet trying to reinforce the common sense lesson “if you don’t have anything helpful to say, stay quiet,” this sort of thing happens all the time.

These are some of the worst attempts, where they went wrong.

1. AT&T: September 11

AT&T’s recent attempt to capitalize on the twelfth anniversary of the September 11 attacks has been receiving a lot of flak the last few days. The company withdrew the tweet almost immediately, and apologized to anyone who felt it was in poor taste.

You can take pictures of the scarred New York City skyline to remind yourself of the tragedy that struck that city those years ago. Therefore, buy AT&T phones.

Image Courtesy of The Globe and Mail

If it isn’t offensive, it is at least idiotic, and fails to create any useful connection between remembering the tragedy and shilling their product. What exactly is the point here? That AT&T phones have good cameras? That AT&T is never going to forget the tragedy? AT&T isn’t a person. By just tweeting “never forget,” they could get away with as a meaningless gesture. But including the shameless plug of their camera phone was just plain dumb.

2. NBC Bay Area: Boston Marathon Bombing

A news site posts a Facebook photo of a bombing victim getting visited by the First Lady? That is reporting, or at least news-related. A news site posts a Facebook photo of a bombing victim getting visited by the First Lady, then says "'LIKE' this to wish him a continued speedy recovery?" That is horrible self-promotion.

For the price of only a moment of your time, you too can help the career of a NBC Bay Area social media marketer recovery of a bombing victim.

This NBC affiliate took the most hated manipulative posts on Facebook: the “like this to express support for X cause everyone obviously supports,” and decided to replicate it as a strategy to build its brand.

3. LA Lakers: September 11

Let’s do an association test: name the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the tragic attacks on September 11, 2001. The Twin Towers? Osama bin Laden? Kobe Bryant?

Confused about why I would insert a seemingly random Kobe Bryant reference there? So were all of the people that saw this tweet.

#NeverForget… that time Kobe Bryant felt sad about 9/11 during a game for a second

Image Courtesy of USA Today Sports

It turns out they were actually posting a picture of the commemorative patches the team wore after the tragedy, and Kobe was just kind of there, incidentally, taking up 90% of the picture.

Even that isn’t much better: reminding someone of a thoughtful gesture you did over a decade ago erases whatever authenticity the original gesture had. It is like if someone came to you at a funeral, and somberly said “I’m sorry for your loss.” Then, a decade later, that person came back and said “you know how I commiserated with you that one time about your loved one’s death? Well, I need a favor.”

4. Ford: Boston Marathon Bombing

Ford posted a thoughtful and respectful thank you to the first responders of the Boston Bombing, saying “To the first responders of Boston: Thank you. You are true American heroes.” Simple, non-intrusive, not taking advantage of tragedy to show off a prod… oh. It was attached to a picture?

A thank you to the true heroes of the Boston Bombing first responder teams: Ford cars and SUVs.

Image Courtesy of Social Media Today and Augie Ray

Never mind. It turns out they said that very nice quote on a picture of heroic-looking Ford cop cars that Michael Bay would think was over the top.

5. Kenneth Cole: Egypt Riots and Syrian Crisis

First, in 2011, the famous designer tweeted that the Egyptian riots for democratization were actually just people getting into an uproar over his new spring collection. He apologized shortly afterward.         

Then, in 2013, he followed up with a repeat performance, tweeting “‘boots on the ground’ or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear.”

Don’t worry, though. It was intentional, as Cole went on to clarify in an interview for Details:

Billions of people read my inappropriate, self-promoting tweet, I got a lot of harsh responses, and we hired a crisis-management firm. […] But our stock went up that day, our e-commerce business was better, the business at every one of our stores improved, and I picked up 3,000 new followers on Twitter. So on what criteria is this a gaffe? [Laughs] Within hours, I tweeted an explanation, which had to be vetted by lawyers. I'm not even sure I used the words I'm sorry—because I wasn't sorry.

This guy is such a shameless dick, Anthony Wiener tweeted a picture of him out of habit. His response more efficiently explains how short-sighted pursuit of attention can damage brand relationships than I ever could.