What compels a company to so thoroughly embarrass itself by trying to profit from tragedy? That's the question many are asking recently as on September 11, just like clockwork, brands on social media once again made fools of themselves trying to connect their products and companies to the shocking terrorist attacks of 2001.
Probably the worst offender this week was much-loathed American telecom giant AT&T, whose insensitivity would probably make Mel Gibson blush. It posted a "Never Forget" message to Twitter which featured an image of the New York skyline with the famous Tribute in Light memorial viewed through a generic smartphone. One wonders if the company's social media team thought the achingly poignant symbolism of those two pillars of light would have been better with an Instagram filter.
What makes the whole thing even more baffling is how easy it is to avoid these sorts of gaffes. Gawker blogger Sam Biddle put it quite neatly: "Good social media marketing tweet: Tomorrow you can buy X for half off! Let us know if you want more info. Bad: TODAY WE HONOR THE DEAD."
It seems simple enough. How then do major brands still manage to mess up such basic considerations of respect and decency? It seems there are at least two things going on: Firstly, the sheer pace of social media demands brands constantly try and keep up; Secondly, as companies rely more on social media to propel sales, there has been a further collapse between marketing and culture.
The commemoration of significant cultural events by companies isn't new, or unique to the Internet. Canadians are quite familiar with such organizations as Tim Horton's or Molson's marking Remembrance Day or celebrations on July 1 with TV ads.
At the same time, the always-on, often mobile nature of social media means it works its way into day-to-day life in a way that other media do not. For many people, that means that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others have become not just "the place to talk," but also a kind of ongoing stream of culture where they converse and connect. Social media is not just where we follow celebrities and talk about Breaking Bad, it's where a growing part of modern life happens.
For obvious reasons, then, as people have gravitated toward social media (and sometimes also away from TV, radio and film) companies pursued them there. Firms and promoters now set up elaborate marketing campaigns that are focused on what many in the field call "engagement": connecting directly with consumers in an ongoing fashion.
Part of what makes brand gaffes so easy is the relentlessness and pace of web-based media. When trends and fads shift at lightning speed, brands must fight to stay front and centre in consumers' minds. Looked at that way, it almost becomes easier to understand – if no less forgivable – as to why brands feel the need to comment on social or historical events at all. If the point is to engage consumers, then you must constantly be where they are, and as culture churns faster and faster, inserting the brand into the daily ebb and flow of online media becomes key to maintaining that "mindshare."
Strangely, then, AT&T's own mistake provides some unexpected insight. Instead of a message of solidarity or remembrance – or, ideally, nothing at all – the image it used puts the company's wares between us and a moment in history, inserting the brand into a place it didn't belong in an attempt to keep itself relevant to the cultural moment.
What makes things even more complicated, however, is that as social media has become mainstream, the pragmatics of sustaining these huge networks have made brands indispensable. Put simply, there is no Facebook or Twitter without advertising, just as there is no TV without those breaks every 10 minutes. If social networking started off as an ideal space to simply connect with people and ideas, economic reality has made that impossible. And just as TV has seen the introduction of product placements in shows themselves, and newspapers and magazines have more and more "information supplements," social media has intensified how brands seep into day-to-day life.
There's nothing inherently wrong with commerce. It is, after all, how our livelihoods are all sustained. But the interests of large companies focused on marketing are not the same as the person looking to commemorate a terrible event, or learn about those things that cannot be commodified.
Increasingly, however, as the medium of culture and the advertising that sustains it become impossible to divide, it may become even more difficult to separate the two. After all, it is also social media that has given rise to the "personal brand" – perhaps the clearest sign yet that we need spaces online free of marketing, lest everything, including ourselves, turn into an ad.