AT&T, Brands Get Skewered for 9/11 Tributes, but is There a Bigger Issue at Play?

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The 12th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11 passed fairly quietly on Wednesday, despite the ruckus churned up by one brand’s gesture to honor the event

AT&T on Wednesday posted a photo to its social media channels that featured an unmarked mobile device taking a photo of the New York City skyline and the Tribute in Light searchlights that shine where the World Trade Center once stood. While it contained no obvious product placement or brand plug, AT&T was skewered for the effort, with fans calling it “very tasteless” and media outlets criticizing the supposed marketing ploy. 

The posts were quickly deleted, and apologies were issued. “We’re big believers that social media is a great way to engage with our customers because the conversation is constant, personal and dynamic. Yesterday, we did a post on social media intended to honor those impacted by the events of 9/11,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson wrote on the company’s blog. “It is a day that should never be forgotten and never, ever commercialized. I commit AT&T to this standard as we move forward.”[more]

AT&T is far from the first—and last—to be criticized for such efforts. The “personal” relationship and seemingly one-to-one engagement that social media has created between brands and consumers also creates a conundrum when it comes to national and global events or tragedies like 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombings or the wars in the Middle East. When brands try to engage in order to stay relevant, are choice words—or no words—best? Are the circumstances different for events perceived as positive, such as the passing of DOMA in the US? While AT&T’s post could have been perceived as product placement, the mobile device used in the graphic was not indentifiable by any logo or distinct markings. After all, AT&T is a mobile company, so the incorporation of the mobile device really just seems like a way of personalizing the tribute. In fact, AT&T posted a very similar tribute last year—and it was received a bit better. 

While plenty of brands and public personalities have crossed the line with ill-advised marketing tactics and off-topic rants, we’re not so sure that AT&T deserved to be burned at the stake for its efforts.

What are you thoughts? Is there a proper way for brands to express remorse, gratitude or support? Is it better to remain neutral than express a point of view? Take a look at some examples and let us know in the comments.

Cole’s response to feedback:

The LA Lakers tweeted a photo of star Kobe Bryant wearing a tribute ribbon on his jersey. That tweet was removed and replaced with an Instagram post of staffers “volunteering.”

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