Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Jul-Aug 2012

Flaunting in the face of grief

When national tragedies strike, brands should exercise sensitivity in their media messages.

Imagine a funeral in a neighbourhood; the gloomy atmosphere as people gather. Now imagine a brand setting up a stall nearby to promote a new product. The brand’s custodians reasoning that as this is a gathering of people, it is an opportunity to promote their products. What kind of reaction can be anticipated from the people at the funeral at the sight of a colourful and rather noisy stall? Although some may remain indifferent, the majority will probably disapprove and feel negatively about the brand.

On April 20, 2012, an airliner crashed before landing at Islamabad Airport. A national tragedy happens, 127 lives are lost and an equal number of families are affected and millions of people across the nation share their grief. Everyone is glued to their television sets and the channels are telecasting every development as breaking news, further compounding the grief. In the midst of all this, some brands do not find anything odd in continuing to air their regular campaigns; campaigns that are carefully put together, full of colour and music and other elements designed to make them stand out in a highly competitive environment. How then are such campaigns received?

I would like to draw a parallel between these campaigns and the imaginary stall near the funeral described earlier.

My contention is that a brand’s advertising campaign during a tragedy (such as the air crash) is distasteful and is bound to create feelings of repugnance rather than achieving a positive impact amongst the target audience.

If brands want their customers to consider them as part of their lives, insensitivity to the environment affecting them amounts to nothing but wasted investment.

Since the days of state television, the media landscape has changed and the competition has increased for both brands and media. In the face of such growth it is sometimes believed that consumers don’t much care whether or not an advertising campaign is running next to a breaking news story about a tragedy. However, a recent dipstick survey* contradicts this. More than 75% of respondents did not approve of seeing regular advertising next to news regarding a national tragedy. In fact, 25% were in favour of regulatory intervention to ensure that ads run during such tragedies are appropriately sensitised to the situation.

However, with so much happening in Pakistan, tragedies are no longer a rarity, and with so many tragedies, it will become impractical for brands to keep tailoring their message to the occasion. Yet, the solution is simple. First, for all that they do matter, all incidents cannot be considered national tragedies. The amount of time given to reporting a tragedy in the media can be used as a yardstick of their impact. Secondly (and most importantly), brands should take the opportunity to demonstrate that they are a part of our lives. Why should brands be insensitive to what their customers are experiencing? To be fair, in the aftermath of the airline crash, not all brands continued to air their regular campaigns; in fact a multimillion rupee campaign by a cell phone company was postponed in deference to the affected families. Such initiatives, small as they may seem, go a long way in making brands a true part of our lives.

If brands want their customers to consider them as part of their lives, insensitivity to the environment affecting them amounts to nothing but wasted investment.

*Online survey conducted by the writer.

M. Talha Salam is a faculty member at FAST School of Management, Lahore.