When companies try to capitalize on events in the news with their social media accounts, it can lead to some, well, sticky situations. A couple of years ago, DiGiorno Pizza inadvertently used a hashtag meant to share women's domestic violence stories to promote pizza. American Apparel apologized after an employee tweeted a photo of the Challenger space shuttle explosion to commemorate July 4. In 2011, Kenneth Cole made an insensitive joke about its latest collection being the reason for the uprising in Cairo, only to make a similar gaffe in 2013.
Now following the death of actress Carrie Fisher, Cinnabon is the latest brand to put itself in a social media knot.
The maker of the sweet and strong-smelling pastries posted a tweet, now deleted, depicting Fisher in her famous role, Princess Leia, with a cinnamon roll in place of one of the buns in her hair. "RIP Carrie Fisher, you'll always have the best buns in the galaxy," the tweet read. After some Twitter users found the tweet to be tasteless in light of the star's death, Cinnabon deleted it and apologized. In an emailed statement, Cinnabon spokeswoman Loryn Franco said "our intention was to pay respect through an image we created in her honor for Star Wars Day 2016" and was "sorry our tweet appeared disrespectful to some."
Our deleted tweet was genuinely meant as a tribute, but we shouldn't have posted it. We are truly sorry.
— Cinnabon (@Cinnabon) December 28, 2016
In many cases of social media uproar, that would be that, and Twitter would move on to whatever controversy came next. But this is America in 2016, a country so divided that it can't even seem to agree on what to think about the response to the death of a famous actress by a brand known for its airport command of our olfactory systems.
The backlash that prompted Cinnabon's apology came swiftly. Some saw the inevitable Star Wars references. ("Off, you must log, @cinnabon," tweeted one digital content specialist with a photo of Yoda.) Others saw the move as out of line. As one branding strategist and instructor put it, "ummmm... NO to your Carrie Fisher tweet! You've gone beyond being a current, responsive brand to opportunistic and super tacky."
— nascarcasm (@nascarcasm) December 27, 2016
— Brad Anderson (@BPAnderson1164) December 28, 2016
But many others tweeted that the backlash was overwrought. Some thought Fisher, who even had a sense of humor when it came to her obituary, would have liked the tweet. Others saw in the Twitter outrage about a cinnamon roll company's tweet an illustration of what became an issue in the 2016 election -- a culture some believe has become too politically correct and too sensitive in America.
— Dat Felryn (@FelrynX) December 28, 2016
@Cinnabon harmless and cool pic of Carrie Fisher. The new PC America will cry about anything. Get your participation trophies millennials!
— Ben Burdi (@Burdman18) December 28, 2016
Why are people so sensitive about everything?? Cinnabon made a creative tribute to Carrie Fisher and SJWs are all boo-hoo, how rude.
— Vonnie Bo-Bonnie ♈️ (@vonnstermash) December 28, 2016
While the response was particularly divided, it isn't the first time outrage over a corporate brand's tweet has sparked controversy, with outrage and defenders. Last year, after Apple released a new set of emoji, Clorox tweeted an image of one of its bottles made up of the tiny digital symbols with the line "new emojis are alright but where's the bleach." While the brand seemed to be asking for an emoji of its own, it also landed at the same time Apple released racially diverse emoji. Some saw the tweet as racially insensitive. Others thought people were being too sensitive.
The backlash to Cinnabon's tweet -- whether deserved or overwrought -- shows why "news-jacking," or an attempt by a brand to inject itself into a social media conversation, can be risky, even if it's meant to be lighthearted or sincere. Sometimes it works -- think Oreo's "you can still dunk in the dark" Super Bowl tweet, or Charmin's toilet paper humor during the Academy Awards. But it's also a tricky bet for marketers, particularly in a divided America that is increasingly finding ways to politicize everyday consumer brands.
May the force be with them.