To acknowledge December 7th yesterday—Pearl Harbor Day here in the United States—the food brand SpaghettiOs sent out the following tweet:
2,402 Americans were killed on December 7, 1941 when Japanese fighters launched a surprise attack on American military ships based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack directly led to the United States entering World War II, in which an additional 418,000 Americans died.
So how, exactly, does a smiling SpaghettiOs noodle holding a flag honor that sacrifice? It doesn’t, obviously, and the more than 5,000 people who retweeted the ridiculous tweet torched the brand for its casual commercialization of a national tragedy.
Worse, they didn’t learn from the mistakes of others. SpaghettiOs was the latest in a long line of brands using moments of commemoration to promote their brand. In August, for example, The Golf Channel “honored” Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech by asking golfers to submit their golf dreams.
And in April, immediately following the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and maimed many others—the food website Epicurious sent these tweets:
In the cases above, I don’t believe that the brands intentionally sent those tweets to manufacture a controversy. But there’s no denying that these social media hubbubs resulted in massive brand recognition, spread by angry tweeters who shared the brands’ names.
I’m no longer convinced that these instances hurt all brands in the long-term; there’s at least some evidence that they don’t. It’s entirely possible that SpaghettiOs, now back in the public consciousness, will experience a boost in sales. If that’s the case, we can expect to see more brands using this tactic intentionally.
Clothing designer Kenneth Cole appears to be doing so already. He sent these tweets in 2011 about Egypt and 2013 about Syria, respectively:
Despite receiving intense criticism for his crassness, he bragged to Details Magazine in October that:
“If you look at lists of the biggest Twitter gaffes ever, we’re always one through five. 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?”
Assuming you don’t want your brand to be associated with those tactics, here are five tips that will help you honor a national holiday, day of commemoration, or news event the right way:
1. Don’t Be Clever
When honoring a holiday on which people died or fought for equal rights, don’t be clever or stretch to make the moment fit your brand (e.g. connecting scones with dead marathoners). If you’re so inclined, make a straightforward and genuine statement honoring the people affected or lost (“72 years ago today, thousands of Americans lost their lives in Pearl Harbor. We honor their sacrifice.”). Obviously, that statement shouldn’t be accompanied by an animated noodle.
2. Don’t Be Promotional
Commemorative days don’t serve as moments to sell your brands. The only exception is if you’ve done something to help. For example, it would be okay to say, “In honor of those who died in Pearl Harbor, we have made a donation of $25,000 to the World War II National Memorial Fund.”
3. For Major News Events, Simpler Is Better
On and after September 11, 2001, most commercial websites understandably felt the need to acknowledge the tragedy. The websites that did it best made it completely about the event. As a positive example, here’s what Amazon.com had on its homepage on September 14, 2001:
4. Ask Whether You Should Say Anything At All
There seems to be an increasing tendency of unrelated brands to comment at every potential moment. A straightforward statement is generally an okay idea, but ask yourself whether you should be saying anything at all. Few brands are expected to comment on Pearl Harbor Day, for example. Ask yourself when your brand should be commenting on those dates—or news events—at all.
5. Train Your Staff
Print this post. Have a formal staff training. Have an informal discussion. However you choose to train your staff, make sure you train your staff! My belief is that most of these mistakes aren’t made by evil, mean, or otherwise horrible people. They’re made, most of the time, by oblivious but well-meaning and untrained people.