As the 15th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, many Americans are preparing themselves for a day of reflection. For some, it will involve mourning. For others, it will be an opportunity to look forward.
But for some folks who work in marketing, it’ll be another chance to do a little #branding.
Each year, companies across the United States employ remarkably tone-deaf marketing strategies that somehow reference 9/11.
This year is no different, as evidenced by a Coca-Cola display prominently erected in the middle of a Walmart in Panama City Beach, Fla.
The display is composed of 12 packs of Coca-Cola original (red boxes), Diet Coke (silver boxes) and Sprite (blue boxes) arranged in the shape of a giant American flag. Before the flag stands two large rectangles composed of 12 packs of Coke Zero (black boxes), which are clearly meant to represent the twin towers.
Hanging above the display is a banner bearing both Coca-Cola and Walmart’s logos. Over an image of the pre-9/11 New York City skyline are the words “We Will Never Forget,” and in the top right corner is “9-11-01.”
Under the banner is a sign announcing that Coca-Cola 12 packs are on sale for $3.33. “Rollback,” the sign states.
The display first came to the public’s attention through a tweet by a user named @online_shawn, which has been retweeted 2,434 times and liked 4,071.
Needless to say, anger rolled in faster than you can say “face-palm.”
“This is one of the lamest things I’ve ever seen,” tweeted one user. Another called it “crass commercialization.” “Utterly tasteless,” tweeted a third. “Is that real?!” asked one user. “Dear God, tell me that isn’t real.” Etcetera, ad nauseam.
— Eric Kabakoff (@erickabakoff) September 6, 2016
Walmart spokesman Charles Crowson told the Orlando Weekly that the display, which was conceived by Coke and approved by Walmart, was currently being taken down.
Neither Walmart nor Coke is the first company to come under fire for invoking the national tragedy as a means to sell stuff.
Each year, companies roll out deals and tweets associated with the attacks, and each year they face a tidal wave of backlash and outrage in response.
One of the more galling examples came in 2014 when the Birmingham, Ala.-based clothing company Tied to the South requested 2,296 retweets, one for each person who had lost his/her life in the attack. The tweet showed one of the towers, just after the attack.
The tweet, like all of the following examples, has been removed after public outcry but not before an intrepid Internet user saves an image.
— Sam Thielman* (@samthielman) September 11, 2014
That same year, the Timehop app’s Twitter account posted a tweet with two photos: one showing its dinosaur mascot looking at an animated New York City cityscape with two beams of light where the towers were, and another showing the dinosaur pointing at the first photo and saying “Memba dis?”
— Helena Bottom-Farter (@solikebasically) September 11, 2014
Finally, Build-a-Bear, the company that allows customers to create their own stuffed teddy bears, tweeted a now-retracted photo of a bear in fatigues, which one prominent user called tone-deaf.
— Miles Kahn (@mileskahn) September 11, 2014
Some companies removed the tweet, while others like AT&T, which in 2013 posted a photograph of a telephone photographing the Tribute in Light searchlights, issue an apology.
We apologize to anyone who felt our post was in poor taste. The image was solely meant to pay respect to those affected by the 9/11 tragedy.
— AT&T (@ATT) September 11, 2013
Randall Stephenson, AT&T chairman and chief executive later told AdWeek, “Yesterday, we did a post on social media intended to honor those impacted by the events of 9/11. Unfortunately, the image used in the post fell woefully short of honoring the lives lost on that tragic day.”
Many users have wondered why some brands feel the need to acknowledge it at all.
It becomes even more head-scratching when companies that sell adult products participate. Both Fleshlight and Intimacy Box, companies that sell adult products, tweeted about the attacks in 2014, and the latter even offered a 40 percent discount.
Other companies that have offered a 9/11 discount, according to AdAge, include Marks Wholesale Socks, Formula Fresh and Caffeine Supreme.
— Formula Fresh (@formula_fresh) September 11, 2014
In remembrance of 9/11 we will be doing a patriotic special drink! 15%off Vanilla Blasts if you want it dyed red… http://t.co/VRUUBqvFOB
— Caffeine Supreme (@CaffeineSupreme) September 11, 2014
In fact, the practice has become so common that after the Onion created a fake ad for Subway promising two foot-long subs for $9.11 with the tagline “Fly on in for Subtember 11” and displaying a truly offensive photograph, one location accepted the coupon as if it were real.
The corporation itself quickly took issue with the satirical ad.
Like everyone, we are deeply offended by the fake story and ad created by The Onion.
— SUBWAY® (@SUBWAY) September 6, 2013
Each of the incidents spark outrage. So much so that experts suggest companies avoid the somber anniversary completely.
“We’ve been saying to people, there’s probably no right way to do this,” J. Walker Smith, executive chairman at the Futures Company consultancy, told the New York Times in 2011. “If I were a marketer, I would let the moment pass. Anything you do could be seen as self-serving or disrespectful.”
Marian Salzman, an author and marketing expert, agreed.
“On one level, you want to convey a sense of empathy and sympathy and patriotism. On another level, there’s a belief that every milestone in American history has been turned into a marketing opportunity,” Salzman told the NYT. “My advice would be to go dark. There’s no place for brands to live.”
But if the Walmart/Coke display in Florida is any indication, some brands are still learning.