Yesterday afternoon, AT&T, on the 12th anniversary of 9/11, AT&T posted the above image on its social media accounts. On Twitter, the backlash was immediate and harsh. AT&T quickly deleted then apologized for the tweet; today, it issued a more formal apology from the company's CEO.
I piled onto AT&T's post, as did what felt like the entirety of my Twitter feed. I doubt many of the people objecting to the ad were genuinely offended by it, but they also weren't wrong about its tastelessness: This phone-themed 9/11 remembrance, posted by a phone company, was tacky.
But what came next was different. The media, fueled by Twitter, piled onto every brand that so much as posted a #neverforget hashtag. And many, many did. Sports teams, toilet paper brands, casinos. Some were more tactful than others but that didn't really matter — these were corporations, with bald agendas, trafficking in sympathy and tragedy of a particularly visceral type. All were scolded, some caved. By this morning, Twitter was celebrating. Taste and propriety had been restored:
It was satisfying, and the idea that Twitter mobilized to prevent the monetization of grieving is an appealing one. But that's not really what happened, and it doesn't reflect a much more powerful reality, one that corporations are keenly aware of: Americans don't mind when brands act like humans.
Set aside the philosophical strangeness of accepting that a toilet paper logo or diaper conglomerate can express sorrow, and look at history: The success of branded expressions of grief or condolence or happiness depends completely on details of execution — on minor adjustments in tone. It's a matter of estimating taste, but the public has accepted that good taste is possible, and enough, in such situations.
Twitter's collective freakout is sign of movement towards the further acceptance of online brand personification, not away from it. It's the sound of loud but ultimately impotent resistance. Looking at the responses to branded 9/11 posts on Facebook, which is a more powerful determiner of marketing strategy than Twitter for most companies, it would be fair to assume that next week's marketing and advertising check-in meetings will be positive ones. We got a lot of likes. Great engagement on that 9/11 post. Poor AT&T! Anyway, let's be careful and do something bigger next year!
Absent the runaway Twitter outrage, this probably would have been the case at AT&T HQ, too: Before it was deleted, AT&T's Facebook post had amassed over 5,000 likes. Someone might have gotten a raise out of it.
Twitter is good at concentrating, amplifying and sometimes containing criticism. It also counts among its power users the naturally skeptical and professionally critical. It provides a framework for content to go viral despite itself, and to be magnified with intent (as opposed to Facebook's larger, more powerful, contextless style of virality).
But most internet users, or at least Facebook users, seem to judge it with pre-internet standards of propriety. Companies, or brands, can talk about tragedy if they do it the right way, and the rules are familiar, borrowed from print and TV: It's ok to promote your brand, but not a product. No humor. Don't talk about yourself too much.
I mean, look at these responses (which are representative, not cherry-picked):
Tweets are inherently trivial, with enforced length and a fly-like lifespan, so they invite a certain kind of criticism, especially when grave issues are involved; what is a "tweet" but a branded "post," anyway? Criticisms of tweets are very often built on a foundation of criticism of Twitter as a medium for serious information.
Facebook is unencumbered by such perceptions. Yesterday's brand mourning outrage was mostly contained on Twitter; on Facebook these gestures were met with genuine enthusiasm. In many cases, even gratitude.
None of this is to say that AT&T was right, or that any brand has any business incorporating national mourning into its brand. Every branded mention of 9/11 is self promotional. This commercial, aired once in 2002, contains a beautiful sentiment. But if its creators truly cared only about its message then it wouldn't have ended with a Budweiser logo. It did, and it aired during the Superbowl. It probably caused people to buy more Budweiser.
So, is it any worse to do the same thing on Facebook? No. Does it seem worse? Yes, but only for now. Is this type of advertising terrible, in general? Has it always been? Probably. But that doesn't matter, and it never has.