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We should never forget 9/11–except for brands, which definitely should forget it

It’s been 16 years since the first commemorations. Lessons (should) have been learned.

We should never forget 9/11–except for brands, which definitely should forget it
[Photo: Brianna Santellan/Unsplash]

Ah, September: School’s back in session, the leaves are starting to turn, pumpkin and maple flavors become omnipresent, there’s a cooling of the air . . . and the 9/11 brand tweets come roaring back.

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Ever since the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, brands have been trying to figure out how to commemorate it.

Holidays and anniversaries are typically a time for brands to turn the hype up and stoke those sales–BACK TO SCHOOL! HALLOWEEN! BLACK FRIDAY! CHRIIIIIIIIIISTMAAAAAASSSS! When even minor festivals such as St. Patrick’s Day and Columbus Day come in for this kind of all-caps marketing blitz, it can be tough to dial it down or recognize that some anniversaries should perhaps be free of commercial interference.

If you Google “brands and 9/11,” it becomes clear that the high-water mark of impatience with this phenomenon was 2014. That’s the year with the most media coverage of how brands reacted to 9/11–and the backlash, rage, and hilarity that ensued.

Not that everyone showed great restraint before or after 2014.

The least offensive tactic is simply an American flag, or a shot of the New York skyline, with a simple variation on “Never forget.” Not necessary, and no one asked to hear from these brands, but okay, it’s not patently inappropriate.

More egregious is something like AT&T in 2013, when it got in trouble for shoehorning in some product placement, but quickly deleted its post and apologized. Or this ill-advised Coca-Cola display that popped up in a Panama City, Florida, Walmart in 2016.

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Or this at a Marriott hotel in 2013:

To try to be fair, companies are entities made up of people. They also have people as customers. They find themselves in an always-on marketing reality. Most of the time they want to talk to us, make us laugh on social media, and sell us stuff. Most of the time these efforts are completely harmless.

But when an occasion like the 9/11 anniversary comes around, they’re like a nervous preteen at their first school dance, not sure what to do with their hands. If there was a general piece of advice for brands on 9/11, it’s right there in the Republican sex-ed curriculum: Try abstinence.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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