Why 'Thirsty' Brand Tweets About Dead Celebrities Won't Go Away
A far cry from the whiskey sipping, chain smoking Mad Men of eras past, modern marketing teams split their time between crafting content that won't offend and apologizing when, inevitably, someone is offended. Tasked with the Herculean notion that everyone on the Web must interact with, "like," and ultimately purchase a product, they spend their days poring over social media mulling how their brands can be part of the conversation.
Increasingly, marketers view every trending topic and cultural event as an opportunity to get involved. That's how Clorox Co. ended up sending an ill-advised tweet about the release of new emojis and General Mills Inc. found itself apologizing for trying to memorialize Prince postmortem, via its Cheerios brand.
But it's also how Oreo scored over 15,000 retweets during the 2013 Super Bowl blackout. No risk, no reward seems to be the rule.
“That was the tweet heard round the world,” said Amber Discko, former social media manager for Denny’s Corp. “I think that day, a lot of people working in [advertising] agencies were" amazed at the impact. "No one will ever forget this in this industry."
While Oreo embodied the ultimate combination of virality and product marketing tied to a news event, it set off what Discko called the “broken record” effect. Now, there's an expectation that big-name companies, brands, and products will nod to those moments that stop America in its tracks, she said. “Whenever any event happens, whether it's Denny’s, Taco Bell, or Clorox, one of them has to do something. Otherwise it's like, ‘Where is it?’”
As a result, brands end up tweeting about trending topics far and wide (with sometimes unwanted results): a new Beyoncé song, the Apple iPhone SE, and (rarer, but the cause of infinitely more debate) the death of a beloved celebrity—most recently the artists David Bowie and last week, Prince.
Matthew Quint, director of the brand leadership center at Columbia Business School, attributed these branded messages to a desire for timeliness: “They want their communications to hit when people are paying attention to some issue going on in the world. We have an opportunity to have our voice be a part of this issue.”
Ronn Torossian, founder of public relations firm 5WPR, agreed, noting that “brands just want to be relevant.”
Messages sent about natural disasters or high-profile deaths are trickiest because they have the greatest capacity to raise hackles. If done poorly, consumers may never use a brand’s product again, perceiving the attempted memorial as exploitative (which, of course, it is). Many of these tweets or campaigns-gone-wrong are quickly deleted as a result, leaving public relations experts and social media users to question why a brand would even consider sticking its toe in such dangerous waters.
Torossian said he spent a considerable amount of time convincing a high-profile client not to send out such a message. Ed Zitron, chief operating officer of the public relations firm EZPR, put the motivation in blunt terms: “They are just, frankly, thirsty. They want to be retweeted.”
While Cheerios and FourLoko rushed to pull down their tweets following Prince’s death, Chevrolet enjoyed a moment in the sun, gaining over 12,000 retweets for its memorial post of the Little Red Corvette singer. Other brands found their tributes the subject of numerous listicles—free press amid grief. The phenomenon is the best example of the belief that, perhaps, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
FourLoko said that "when we learned that a tweet meant to pay homage to Prince upset some people we deleted it. We apologize." Cheerios stated that, “as a Minnesota brand, Cheerios wanted to acknowledge the loss of a musical legend in our hometown. But we quickly decided that we didn’t want the tweet to be misinterpreted, and removed it out of respect for Prince and those mourning.” Crocs Inc., which sent a tweet about Bowie's death, didn't reply to a request for comment.
Despite all the potential for a negative return, Discko doesn’t expect brands to stop sending out these messages. In fact, she expects them to get better at it, with more Chevrolet and Oreo moments to come. “As the younger generation who grew up in the social media age takes over the entry-level jobs doing stuff like this, it’ll become less gross,” she explained. “I envision social like a wall, brands on one side and people on the other. There’s a cultural event at the top and they’re all trying to get there. Eventually, that wall will be gone.”