Suffering: The New Ad Medium?

There are few corners of society and everyday life where brands have not jostled for our attention. Media placement for brands is increasingly ingenious and even in the most unlikely locations we may now see an ad for some product or other.

No wonder the world is numb to marketing.

And no wonder people are not listening. They are closing our online pop-up boxes, changing channels on our TV ads, skimming our print ads.

The recent events around the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 prompted me to wonder: Are tragedies a place for brand building?

Many millions would have seen the Budweiser and State Farm TV ads on September 11th. Both spots sought to commemorate the tragedy but provoked very different responses. The State Farm ad was received warmly, but the Budweiser ad was perceived by some as insincere and out of place (it was an old ad that had previously aired directly after 9/11).

Advertising as commemoration has polarized people online, most believing it is still about promoting the company more than honoring victims.

With this viewpoint in mind, as the world becomes more frequently politically and environmentally unstable, will we see more brands marketing around uprisings, riots, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and even barbarous terrorist attacks?

Well, I suspect that the answer is yes. Is this approach justified or horribly, horribly inappropriate?

One view is that moments of the most extreme human anguish and despair are not places for a good old advertising message.  Brands don’t belong there. It is a moment for compassion and empathy and respect. Victims deserve a certain dignity of distance by commerce.

A growing alternate view is that because brands happily make themselves a part of society during the good times, they should do something useful during the worst of times.

By “useful,” I mean helpful, generous, beneficial, genuine. Giving money? Yes, but brands have a power to do more than that.

In 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart made use of its local knowledge about supply chains, infrastructure, decision-makers and other resources to provide emergency supplies and open stores to police, rescue services and victims. It was able to react far quicker than the federal government ever could.

Animals affected by the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were saved, thanks to Procter and Gamble’s Dawn dishwashing liquid. Thousands of bottles were sent to rescue teams to aid animal cleanup. Dawn, as it turns out, is especially good at removing oil from animals, thanks to a secret formula (ironically, the key ingredient is made from oil) and has been helping animals for many years.

Tide detergent (another P&G brand) sends mobile Laundromats to disaster areas, washing tons of soiled clothing, most recently in Haiti following the earthquake.

These are examples where a brand has done something very useful, offering something no relief organization could have. The brand acted in a relevant way.

It seems to be about appropriateness. If a brand is clear on its role to provide something relevant at that time of need (or in the aftermath), then why should this be wrong?

But the inevitable question for CEOs and CMOs will be “how do we leverage that investment and activity?” Do we share our good deeds with the world or remain helpful but anonymous? Can we brand build from this?

Wal-Mart no doubt acted out of compassion during Hurricane Katrina, but acting clearly helped ease the negative brand perceptions, criticism and lawsuits it was facing at the time. Incidentally, the company later went on to claim that whenever a hurricane strikes again, Wal-Mart would be there. There is now an in-house meteorologist and “Emergency Operation Center” that can ensure stores in threatened areas become “disaster stores” stocked with products people will likely need and buy prior to a disaster. But is this preparation in order to help people or preparation to profit from disaster?

Dawn dishwashing liquid followed its donation of product with a well-funded campaign, communicating its role in the oil cleanup efforts, adorable ducklings on prime-time TV and all. New package designs portray animals, and we are now invited to donate via a special website (where Dawn can capture more of our data). We can even connect and share via a Dawn Facebook page.

Tide actually has a catchy name and slick website for its washing activity in disaster areas: Tide’s Loads of Hope, where we are encouraged to buy special packs to support the relief efforts.

Irrespective of whether you view these examples as cynical marketing opportunism or not, they get nowhere close to the violently disliked errors from Microsoft Bing and Kenneth Cole.

Microsoft decided to support the devastating earthquake in Japan via Twitter. Every time users retweeted a particular link promoting Bing, Microsoft would give $1 to Japan’s earthquake victims. A flood of criticism erupted, summarized perfectly by Freakonomics.com: “How dare you use the tragedy of an earthquake to help promote Bing.” Microsoft was forced to apologize.

Kenneth Cole disastrously decided to capitalize on the uprisings (and without thinking about the deaths) in Egypt this year via Twitter: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at xxxxx.” That was an utterly inappropriate and ignorant act by the brand.

If I am honest, I haven’t come to a conclusion on all this yet. It challenges many of my sensibilities. But I do find appealing the idea of brands doing something immensely relevant during times of crisis. Clearly, though, there are lines that cannot and should not be crossed.

Incidentally, I noticed my wife watching the Dawn duckling ad the other day and we now seem to have switched our brand of loyalty to Dawn, perhaps proving that suffering is a new ad medium.

by Adam Swann

Vice President, Planning

Follow Adam on Twitter @SwanninNYC

Cross-posted at Ignite Something on the Forbes CMO Network