“Here, this will make you feel better” – Using tragic world events to promote business products through social media

The subject of this week’s blog revolves around an ethical issue that I find particularly significant when businesses use social media: the use of current world event, in particular tragic ones, in the promotion, branding or marketing of a business’s product or service on social media.

I never thought that, in an assessed piece of writing that contributes to my degree, I would be using a Buzzfeed article to form the bedrock of my argument, however, as it so happens, 19 Companies That Made Huge Social Media Fails supports my argument so well that it warrants inclusion in its entirety. But first I want to make my feeling on the matter very clear: exploiting a tragedy to further promote ones products is extremely tasteless and ethically and morally wrong, akin to the people on Facebook who post pictures of cancer sufferers or wounded soldiers or recently deceased celebrities with the caption ‘1 like = 1 respect’, in an attempt to improve their social media standing (a tactic actually employed by MSN and many others detailed in the list).


MSN tweet exploiting the death of Bee Gees co-founder Robin Gibb in an attempt to gain likes Source:http://s3-ec.buzzfed.com/static/enhanced/webdr03/2013/5/8/17/enhanced-buzz-13432-1368050306-24.jpg

The article contains numerous examples. Concerned about the violent uprising and civil unrest in Egypt? Don’t worry, they’ve only heard the rumour of retail store Kenneth Cole’s new spring collection (Number 1). Worried that the hashtag #Aurora may be to do with the movie theatre shooting? No it’s probably to do with Celeb Boutiques new Kim Kardashian inspired Aurora dress (Number 7). Hoping that your loved one will be okay when powerful storms hit the east coast of America? You shouldn’t be because Urban Outfitters is offering free shipping (Number 9).

I understand that social media now plays an important role in a company’s marketing strategy. If done properly, it provides access to millions of potential customers at the click of a button, but every other week there is a story of a so-called ‘social media fail’, where a tweet is sent out by a company’s Twitter account that is inappropriate or controversial, and within hours has gone viral. Case in point would be #hasJustinelandedyet, a top trend that went viral after a PR executive tweeted a racist aids joke before boarding a flight to South Africa, or the admittedly rather tame tweet that led to the resignation of MP Emily Thornberry.

Picture of Emily Thornberry tweet

Tweet sent by Emily Thornberry that has created such a storm in the last week, both before and after her resignation Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30142579

The issues lies with how popular social media is and how connected everyone on ita is. Playing on the six degrees of separation theory, Sysomos found out that the average Twitter user is just 5 steps away from anyone else on Twitter. Therefore, even if a distasteful tweet is deleted within minutes of posting, it is incredibly likely that the tweet will have been screenshotted and sent around the world, which is how topics go viral and how the reputation businesses and employees are tarnished. The remarkable thing is that this ethical issue is certainly one that is easily avoided using simple common sense or having clear social media guidelines, but is one that I fear will continue indefinitely as companies underestimate the power and reach of social media.

Reference List

Calderon, A. (2013) 19 Companies That Made Huge Social Media Fails. Buzzfeed Online. 22nd May. (http://www.buzzfeed.com/ariellecalderon/19-companies-that-made-huge-social-media-fails).

Withnall, A. (2013) PR executive Justine Sacco apologises after losing job over racist Aids ‘joke’ prompted #HasJustineLandedYet Twitter storm. The Independent Online. 22nd November. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/pr-executive-justine-sacco-apologises-after-losing-job-over-racist-aids-joke-provoked-hasjustinelandedyet-twitter-storm-9020809.html).

Donald, A. (2014) Emily Thornberry: How one tweet led to her resignation. BBC News Online. 21st November. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30142579).

Cheng, A. (2010) Six Degrees of Separation, Twitter Style. Sysomos Inc Resources. April. (http://www.sysomos.com/insidetwitter/sixdegrees/).


8 thoughts on ““Here, this will make you feel better” – Using tragic world events to promote business products through social media

  1. I liked this post a lot. You’ve shown some good points regarding the view of businesses unethically using social media for sometimes inappropriate uses. But I have a few questions; is it really a case of an inappropriate use of social media (if we look at your MSN example) or is just that the medium of social media is limited? By that I mean, showing support by ‘liking’ something doesn’t necessarily mean a user literally likes it, it’s just the best way of showing a user has acknowledged something and they support the post for whatever reason. Additionally, do you think consumers are tired of politically correct adverts or one’s that seem like they want to appeal to all? If we look on a general level, the Jaguar and Mercedes chicken adverts are an example of this (not shown through social media admittedly) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mjKzugXpWY&spfreload=10) and this Paddy Power joke which was through social media? (http://www.marketingmagazine.co.uk/article/1307555/paddy-power-tweets-wrong-number-prank-conversation)


    • Charlie,

      Thanks for the comment! Reading back through my blog I’m not sure I made this very clear, but I’m not saying that companies shouldn’t show their support or condolances through social media. What I have an issue with is companies exploting these events. The whole point of comanies existing on social media is that they are looking to connect with and expand their customer base though likes, chares, follws and ReTweets, and employing tragic events as a means of achieving this is just morally wrong.
      In answer to your other point, yes I do think customers are tired of these kinds of adverts however I think companies know this as well, and are therefore constantly coming up with adverts that are quirky and different and stick in the mind, be it on social media or on TV. The car advert is a perfect example, its obviously resonated with you and stuck in your head. John Lewis and Coca-Cola I think employ similar tactics with their flagship Christmas adverts; you would have to be living in a hole to not have seen the John Lewis penguin advert, which also received considerable attention on Twitter




  2. Hi Adam,

    I love your post. You definitely point out how just a simply mistake can cause massive reputational damage – even in some very subtle cases, such as the “Image from #Rochester” debacle.

    However, is there not also room to examine some of the more grey areas when it comes to these social media gaffes? Take, for instance, the case of the infamous Sochi 2014 tweet from the Lotus F1 Team (http://www.autoblog.com/2014/02/10/lotus-f1-twitter-lgbt-apology/).

    The thing about the internet is that it IS available worldwide, and thus it is important to take into account cultural differences. In this case, whilst in most Western countries, the pro-LGBT tweet would be seen as somewhat radical in a very positive light, to many Russians, and indeed the Russian investors of the Lotus F1 Team itself, such a tweet would seem absolutely abhorrent in the same way as we perceive the 19 “Social Media Fails”.

    The team decided to quickly remove the tweet, apologise for it and fire the PR Chief responsible (http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/motor-racing/lotus-f1-pr-chief-fired-for-gay-kiss-tweet-in-support-of-athletes-at-sochi-winter-olympics-9546629.html). This was met with its own backlash by numerous fans who appreciated the often dangerous style of tweeting from the Twitter account and who felt that the statement made by the original tweet was both effective and endearing. This formed a small PR Fiasco as the team sacrificed public opinion for their attempt to claw back favour from the Russian investors.

    Situations such as this one show that the situation isn’t always black and white between “Right” and “Wrong” tweets. Whilst it can be argued that the contentious nature of the original Tweet (given Russia’s anti-LGBT propaganda laws) was the reason behind the whole fiasco, there is also room to argue that had the Tweet remained up, the team would have actually gained favour in the eye of the general publics of most of the countries it was marketing to.

    I hope this has been of interest to you! I wonder if you are aware of any other such “grey area” Tweets which have left companies between a rock and a hard place when it comes to their PR?



    • Calum,

      Thanks for comment, its certainly been of interest looking up the controversy with Lotus. I had never really considered this grey area, instead going with the far end of the scale with company social media use that is obviously exploitative and inappropriate, however you raise a very good point. I guess it comes down to individuals and who is offended by what and whether their offence is justifiable (obviously some people are offended by the most insignifacnt thing) especially in an issue as polarising as LGBT.
      It is important to look at each situation in the context. Take TESCOs horse pun tweet during the horse meat scandal (http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/jan/18/tesco-tweets-horsemeat). As someone who wasn’t really that appalled by the whole scandal, I found the tweet amusing and admired TESCO for making light of a situation that I didn’t feel as big a deal. However, someone coming from a different perspective may see TESCOs tweet as them not taking the issue seriously enough and would therefore be offended by it.
      Obviously the horse meat scandal is not as polarising as the LGBT issue, but I think it still shows the need to look at a particular context and ask how big an deal is the issue at hand.



  3. Hi Adam,

    I loved reading this week’s post and your use of such a contextual and different source aka Buzzfeed to strengthen your argument! I too chose to focus on ethical issues for businesses this week, however, I didn’t consider or research into the ways in which businesses can often use a tragic event to promote themselves – which is in itself abhorrently fascinating! I was completely unaware of some of the ‘social media fails’ you mentioned such as Urban Outfitters and MSN – its so hard to believe that the PR and Comms teams would let such incentive posts go out on social media!

    In a slightly similar vein to you, I too looked at the ethics involved in businesses using social media. In my post, I included in my post how companies such as Coca-Cola, often jump on the back of social media trends such as the #ALS Ice Bucket challenge, in order to make themselves look good and to promote themselves. I would be interested to know whether you share my views that corporations manipulate their image on social media and will jump onto any trend in order to appear ethical, or whether you feel that companies are simply trying to make themselves appear current and ‘with the times’.

    Here is the link if you are interested: http://youtu.be/0JRG9sKDd2k




  4. Hey Adam,

    Great post to read, really enjoyed how you got across that it is not right businesses feed off of events benefit themselves and to gain self awareness. In my blog too, I presented the same ethical issue, portraying similar opinions to yourself.

    I do agree with Charlies comment though, how sometimes there are brands and companies who just want to spread the awareness of a particular tragic event, and, unfortunately, one of the quickest ways to do this is to share, like retweet etc.

    Yet, if people feel that a specific comment is offensive, can this not be fixed, or at least reduced, by companies and customers clicking on the “report” button? I know that Twitter has recently included such a button, after one woman campaigned for it

    Also you mentioned #hasJenniferlandedyet, the attached link is about Justine Sacco. Is this the story you meant or did you mean something different?



  5. It is interesting to see that we have both discussed similar topics for this ethical issue. Whilst I concentrated on insensitive/offensive jokes, your point on businesses exploiting tragedies is even more ethically questionable. These tragedies are normally in the news because of the sheer number of people that they impact, so these tweets/posts are actually exploiting the lives of many as opposed to just a few.

    I too disagree with businesses intentionally miss-using these delicate topics, which they know will have strong emotional responses. They essentially use these topics to ‘guilt trip’ users into liking/retweeting their content for their own gain. Which is actually quite disrespectful.

    Do you think Facebook and Twitter should take action against this sort of exploitation? Maybe a clause in the Terms and Conditions which forbids ‘1 like = 1 respect’ types of posts.



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