Keep calm and cash in: why disaster-based advertising is doomed to failure

Hurricane Sandy has wreaked terrible devastation across North and South America. While the death toll continues to rise millions of families are confined to their homes, if they haven’t lost them to the storm. At times like this it’s good to know that big brands care, which is why American Apparel has kindly offered an exclusive discount code to Sandy’s victims in the Eastern states, to bring a little relief to an awful situation in the form of well-cut sports casual clothing:

Boredom is the highest emotion that Sandy’s victims will have in mind at a time like this – American Apparel clearly trusts the stoic nature of its target customers.

The brand has rightly earned criticism across the web for their thinly-disguised chaos cash-in. They’re not alone, however. You can hear the panic in Gap’s Monday tweet from the centre of the Frankenstorm:

It’s a good job Gap used the #Sandy tag, as we might not have known which Sandy they were referring to and they might not have come up in our Twitter feeds. The fact that they managed to check in via Foursquare in the middle of the storm is impressive, too.

Brooklyn Industries, a firm that has had much of its stock wiped out by Sandy, sent its customers an email apologising for delays in distributing orders on Monday. The tone of the message is much warmer than Gap’s weak attempts at sounding concerned. But Brooklyn’s offer of a discount for new orders at the end of the message makes for uneasy reading, and begs the question of whether brands wrong to cash in on events like Sandy. Is making the best of a bad situation always a marketing no-no? It could be argued that firms like Brooklyn Industries need to find ways of picking themselves up quickly after such events – however, this clearly puts them at risk of adopting more desperate measures than usual. Which leaves many people wondering, what’s American Apparel’s excuse?

There are brands for whom building a campaign around disaster – or rather survival in the face of a disaster – can be both relevant and relatively inoffensive (providing, that is, they avoid reference to a real event that has put lives at risk). Take for example this gem from American family-tank maker Hummer.

If all of this doom-laden talk has got you down, take a look at this example of environmental activists turning the disaster-advertising concept on its head, and trying to create a real-life PR storm by associating Shell Oil with a fake disaster. One of the supposed campaign taglines – Some Say Catastrophe, We Say Opportunity – is, unfortunately, an all-too-accurate description of the approach taken by certain brands when chaos strikes.

Callum Dunbar

Author: George Wright Theohari

Branding | Content | Design. We develop and deliver beautifully effective communications across print, digital and film.

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