You’d think the Subway chain – whose former spokesperson, Jared Fogle, is serving 15 years in prison for child pornography – would take greater care when it comes to their marketing decisions. Yet days ago a Subway restaurant in Rincon, Georgia used their billboard to proclaim “Our subs don’t implode”, in reference to what happened recently to the Titan submersible.

Head office quickly distanced the chain from the sign. In a statement, Subway said: “We have been in contact with the franchise about this matter and made it clear that this kind of comment has no place in our business.”

Why do some businesses feel that disasters make for an ideal advertising tie-in?

In San Antonio, Texas in September 2016, staff at a Miracle Mattress store shot a video for social media. In it, two men stood aside two towers of bedding. A woman said to the camera: “What better way to remember 9/11 than with a Twin Tower sale. Right now you can get any sized mattress for a twin price.” Then the men knocked down the bedding, to which the woman said “Oh my God”, screamed, and added “We will never forget.” The owner of the store apologized.

Not to be outdone, a golf course in Verona, Wisconsin ran a newspaper ad in September 2013 promoting nine holes of golf for $9.11 on the anniversary of 9/11. That owner apologized too after the predictable backlash, yet was surprised. “We’re a little hurt by the fact that people are putting such a negative context on this. I thought people would appreciate it,” he told Associated Press.

You think it can’t get worse? It can. In 2012, a gym called The Circuit Factory in Dubai ran an ad on their Facebook group. It showed their logo on the top, and their website and one line of copy at the bottom: “Kiss your calories goodbye.” No problem, except in between was an image of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Major international brands have been called out too. In 2012, when the devastating Hurricane Sandy was just hitting the New York and New Jersey area, Gap saw fit to tweet: “All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We’ll be doing lots of shopping today. How about you?” Sandy killed 233 people in eight countries and caused $70 billion in damages.

And in 2017 Adidas got into trouble when they were sponsoring the Boston Marathon. Just four years earlier at the marathon, a bomb was planted that killed three and injured more than 260 people. Adidas sent an email to the finishers with this subject line: “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” An official apology came quickly after many recipients complained. “We are incredibly sorry. Clearly, there was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line we sent,” Adidas stated.

For marketers, are tragedies automatically out of bounds? If you’re thinking of inserting your brand in any way, whether through an ad or a social media post, ask yourself three questions.

One, can you be of service? If you have a role to play in raising awareness or money, or being part of a response, e.g. with tangible assistance after natural disasters, then maybe.

Two, why are you commenting at all? I mean, what relevance do you have here? If the answer is “I don’t know”, then stay away.

Three, are you trying to promote a product? If the answer is “yes”, then you’re at best an opportunist. But exploitative, unscrupulous and parasitic might fit too.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

July 5, 2023

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