Real time Marketing and Tragedy

These days brands are expected to be real time content creators. Whether it’s a quick and clever branded ode to the royal baby or other seemingly spur of the moment response to a major event (who can forget Oreo’s smash hit tweet in the midst of the 2013 Superbowl blackout?), companies must stay on top of the latest happenings and develop engaging ads accordingly.

The real time marketing trend challenges the traditional ad agency model’s process: collaborate, ruminate, develop a concept and drafts, and submit to client for approval. Now, the middle steps of concept and drafts take a backseat to fast collaboration and hurried submission. This is all well and good when it comes to joyful events like new babies and sporting events, but what about the advertiser’s responsibility during somber events of remembrance and reverence like the anniversary of September 11? Here, it seems that corporate advertisers walk a fine line between respect and pandering self-promotion.

This year, 12 years after the 9/11 tragedy, a number of brands paid tribute to the victims and their families. Many of these social media tributes were well-received by the public but this tweet by phone giant AT&T, was not. 

real time marketing misstep AT&T

Even though the phone displayed is fairly non-descript and the freedom tower lights are certainly a moving spectacle, consumers and the media took issue with what many saw as transparent branding and a plea for retweets. AT&T promptly deleted the tweet and issued an official apology.

 While we won’t go too far in depth about the possible objections to the ad (It’s a matter of personal opinion, really), there are some important lessons to gain about real time marketing and major tragedy:

  1. Paying tribute to the victims of a tragedy through advertising is almost never a good idea and it is very hard to do well.
  2. If a brand does choose to release a tribute over a channel usually used for advertising, the ad must be organic, genuine and give the sense that it stemmed from the culture of the organization. “Forced” reverence does not come off well. 
  3. In situations like these, brands must not sacrifice quality for speed of ad deployment. Therein lies the challenge with real time marketing and tragedy.


To sum up, it is generally a bad idea to turn a crisis into an advertising opportunity, even if the effort does come from an honest place. Even the best intentions are often perceived as marketing ploys.

Need marketing or PR advice? Call or contact the Primm Company. We’ll be here to make sure you don’t press “Send” on that questionable tweet.