WhatsYourPrice.com, a "dating" website where men can bid on a date with a woman, issued a press release saying, "During the Dark Knight Massacre, three men lost their lives to save the lives of their girlfriends. But what if you were on a first date, and you had only just met?"
It went on to say that the men on their site were "generous" and implied they would be more willing to take a bullet for their date.
Needless to say, there was some pretty severe backlash. Many Twitter users called out the company for being insensitive and trying to profit off a tragedy, and Brandon Wade, the founder of WhatsYourPrice.com, responded.
It was a pretty boneheaded move to use the shooting in the press release in the first place, and not listening to feedback was even worse. There's no question about that.
But it did make a morbid part of my mind wonder: Could it be done? Is there some way that a brand can use the publicity of a major tragedy like that and turn it to their advantage?
On the surface that would seem impossible. I can think of a couple of failed attempts off the top of my head, like Groupon's super bowl commercial with Timothy Hutton, and Kenneth Cole's infamous tweet. I'm sure you can come up with a few more examples.
But I also think of Budweiser.
After September 11, they had a touching tribute featuring their Clydesdales bowing toward the New York skyline. There were a few critics(aren't there always?), but generally it was well-received enough that they remade the spot for the 10-year anniversary of the event.
But why were they okay? What's the difference between the Budweiser Tribute spots, and WhatsYourPrice.com's "This is so sad, now BUY OUR STUFF" approach?
I guess it would be the "buy our stuff" part.
What makes the Budweiser spots tributes is that they aren't selling anything. They are expressions of grief and sympathy. They have Budweiser branding to let you know who the message comes from, but that's all. It's like putting your signature on a sympathy card.
To emphasize that point, Budweiser only ever aired the spots once. They didn't want to turn it into a regular commercial because they didn't want to spoil the sentiment.
So there's the key. Selling is the poison that turns a touching and heartfelt sentiment into a disingenuous and manipulative sales pitch. If you want your audience to know that your message comes from the heart, don't sell. It can't be done.