When is it acceptable for brands to stop/start grieving?

Like the rest of the world the recent horrific murders in Paris and then Belgium involving Islamic fundamentalists, shook me to the core.

In genuine democracies like Israel, hardly a day passes without yet another innocent civilian being stabbed ...in the street…at the bus stop… cafe…garage -by yet another 'wannabe fundamentalist' seeking peer credibility, identity and purpose for the Self.

As I write, there is news of another callous Islamic terror killing in Israel. This time an 18 year-old American boy on a gap-year. (Last year fundamentalists murdered my son’s teacher - and friend of the family).

Unnerving times

Shortly before the Parisian attacks, suicide bombers on motorcycles slaughtered at least 43 people and wounded more than 200 others in a predominantly Shia area of southern Beirut. ISIS claimed responsibility.

Soon after the Paris slayings, 20 innocent people, including an Israeli, American, three Chinese, a Belgian, Senegalese and six Russians, died in a siege at the Radisson Blu hotel, Bamako, Mali.

Wearing hearts on homepages

brands and terror PR

Brands were quick to respond to the awful attacks in Paris via special homepages.

However people in the in the Near, Middle and Far East (all growth markets) could all too easily believe that when it comes to digital, far too many Western brands simply turn a ‘blind eye’ to innocent bloodshed by Fundamentalists on the streets of Dhaka, Maguindanao, Asongo, Mamasapanoel, Bet-Shemesh, Al-Arish, or Beirut.

Not in my back-yard

Things feel very different when attacks are carried out in the West. Following the massacre in Paris, brands such as Google, Amazon and YouTube altered homepages to feature tributes like black-ribbons, tricolour tinted filters on user profiles, and so on.

As with the terror attacks at the start of 2015 that left 12 slumped dead at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, at the instigation of the November tragedies, Facebook Twitter users … et al., encouraged consumers to share global hashtags, and memes in support of families and in memory of victims.

Such initiatives were admirable. However, in terms of correctness and duration were they actually appropriate? Should consumer brands even get involved in local disputes or geo-terror politics in the first place?

Earlier this year, Starbucks USA ran a campaign encouraging customers to discuss race riots with Baristas. (Not that appealing if all a customer wants is a warming morning skinny latte, rather than heated debate).

We are constantly reminded of obligations and expectations that come with living in a highly connected social world. Individual ‘likes’ (or 'hearts') reinforce the broader community of empathisers. Poorly calculated ‘blocks’ or comments can reveal individuals as callous: nothing less than intellectual, emotional, social, professional or technological laggards.

Assuming brands offer platforms demonstrating concern and support for humanitarian, rather than public relations reasons, how long should special brand memorial homepages and their ilk, remain ‘live’?

Over the last two weeks I monitored the ‘usual brand suspects’. Following the Paris massacres, on average, brands removed tributes within eight days. Some even swapped black ribbons for banners advertising upcoming seasonal Black Friday discounts.

Regrettably, for the foreseeable future, terror groups are highly unlikely to band together as a global tapestry-sewing collective for peace.

With attacks forever escalating, brands may sadly be placed in the position of regularly judging which terror assault deserves a special tribute — and which doesn’t.

  • How long should a tribute last?

  • Will supporting one country’s catastrophe — ignoring another, widen chasms?

Zeinab Hara:

As a Lebanese citizen who lives only ten minutes away from similar bombing attacks that happened a day before Paris attacks, I saw no response from the whole world… 43 killed and 200 wounded does not sound like enough to get any attention. Simply bcz we are third world. This makes us considered less human than advanced countries. Facebook doesn't bother making safety checks, and not one brand says sorry for Beirut. No-one thinks of donating one dollar for the ppl attacked. These ppl are too poor to even pay for medication. Of course no one bothers with such countries bcz they will just make you feel guilty bcz u spend thousands of dollars on entertainment and brands while Lebanese fight for scholarships to study and move forward. So don't pretend to be humans when you neglect your brothers in humanity bcz they are not Europeans or American.

(Lebanese surfer comment on commercial concerns regarding Paris attacks. Source: Interbrand, 16/11/2015).

Shock and bore

As with some cases of ‘charity fatigue’ are we in danger of becoming increasingly desensitised to digital ‘brand sympathy cards’?

Perhaps, given the continual shrinking of attention times, empathy-winning terror events could eventually be judged according to levels of violence and metrics analysis - driven ‘PR poignancy’ of viral photographs:

One dead child vs. one bombed village. Beheading vs. firing squad…

Church of England cinema commercial

Earlier this week, cinema advertising media owners ‘banned’ a seasonal commercial by the Church of England promoting The Lord’s Prayer. It was deemed potentially fundamentally offensive to some English audiences….

Which got me thinking… religion is often criticised for getting too involved with politics. In an increasingly divided world, united by a search for genuine identity, purpose, meaning and recognition, will brands choosing to show solidarity with causes slowly begin to lose their brand-touch of authenticity with cynical, time-poor consumers. Or will consumers simply take sides according to their brand beliefs?…

Jonathan Gabay


Author Brand Psychology

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