This year, September 11 marks the 20h anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on American soil in history. And every year, brands struggle with the uneasy question: do we pay tribute, or is that tacky? In the past, brands that have attempted to pay tribute on social media have, more often than not, been told their efforts are unwelcome. Yet every year, as companies continue rolling out advertising campaign associated with the attacks, they receive a wave of outrage and backlash from consumers as a response. It’s clear the public doesn’t want to see brands using 9/11 to profit, even in a tributary way.
Consumers have made it clear on social media that using 9/11 to market consumer goods does nothing to honor the victims of the attacks or their families. An increasing number of consumers have even begun boycotting brands that attempt to highlight this important date in U.S. history and see it only as another unwelcome marketing ploy.
Several big brands have tried over the years to make tributes on the anniversaries of the attacks. In 2014, CVS Pharmacy posted a picture of Manhattan with two lights meant to represent the towers, along with a logo in the bottom corner. Twitter dubbed this a #brand fail as people quickly began to flood social media with complaints. The photo was taken down shortly thereafter.
In 2016, Walmart and Coca-Cola came under fire for a tasteless display of Coke structures resembling the American Flag, the twin towers, and a “we will never forget banner,” along with a sale sign right beneath the banner. The consumer market has made it clear that 9/11 isn’t the anniversary to commemorate with advertising or marketing.
A number of consumers have publicly wondered why some brands feel the need to continue creating such campaigns, or even acknowledge the event in the first place. Not only have these companies wound up on the receiving end of plenty of public backlash, but more often than not they later had to reverse their actions and publicly apologize.
This practice regarding 9/11 tributes and campaigns has become so common in the last two decades that several years ago, the popular satirical news outlet The Onion decided to create a fake advertising campaign paired with offensive photos, which, predictably, sparked further outrage.
For brands and corporations, the best way to go about this important date in U.S. history is to simply go dark, as it’s clear most Americans believe this is not an event that should be utilized for any promotional efforts.
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR agency.