Social media was buzzing Wednesday with posts and updates commemorating the 12-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but AT&T caused a different kind of buzz with a controversial 9/11 tweet.
Captioned with “Never Forget,” AT&T’s Twitter account, @ATT, posted a picture of the Manhattan skyline. The controversy, however, comes in when you see that the most important aspect of the picture, the part showing the World Trade Center tribute lights shining up from ground zero where the Twin Towers once stood, is displayed on a phone.
This blatant product placement caused a firestorm of negative tweets replying to AT&T.
Within a half hour, the tweet was deleted and an apology was issued from the account. “We apologize to anyone who felt our post was in poor taste. The image was solely meant to pay respect to those affected by the 9/11 tragedy,” the tweet said.
I’m not sure how this decision made it through the chain of command at AT&T, from production of the picture to final approval and hitting send, but what happened here was a huge and offensive oversight. I was in the first grade in September 2001 and even as a 6-year-old, I developed enough of a connection to the terrorist attacks that I was left cringing when I saw the tweet.
Many people put up some kind of picture, status or update on Sept. 11, but the purpose isn’t for favorites on Twitter or likes on Facebook. It’s certainly not to push a product. The purpose is to honor those whose lives were lost or changed forever in those frightful hours 12 years ago. That being said, AT&T stepped way out of line by placing a phone on its commemorative picture — because a picture is supposed to be just that, commemorative. How much can AT&T honor the victims of 9/11 if it was simultaneously trying to advertise its product?
AT&T’s idea to connect its products to 9/11 has created an ugly backfire for the company. The Manhattan skyline and the “Never Forget” message are a sign of sincerity. When officials from the company made the decision to place a phone in the picture, they made an attempt to connect the AT&T business and product line to a terrorist attack that killed innocent civilians, something AT&T has absolutely no reason for doing.
While the backlash on Twitter was harsh, I doubt the company will see any long-term negative effects. It certainly isn’t the only company to make advertising mistakes related to 9/11 — a Wisconsin golf course ran an ad in the Wisconsin State Journal bragging of its Sept. 11 deal, nine holes with cart for $9.11 or 18 holes with cart for $19.11, meant to “commemorate” 9/11. The ad soon went viral and received a great deal of negative feedback, but the course decided to open anyway Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
The instances show that while social media can help companies’ promotions tremendously, when it comes to national tragedies, it often brings them under tight scrutiny – after all, everyone can see their mistakes.