Last week, Hurricane Sandy put a halt to nearly everything on the East Coast from power lines to public transportation. One thing it didn’t seem to lull? Marketers and advertisers looking to capitalize on the storm’s newsworthy status.
The storm was still raging on Monday when several companies seized the opportunity to reach out to consumers with tweets and e-mails, offering up “Sandy Sales” for bored, trapped-inside shoppers. While some of these campaigns, such as those offering up emergency assistance and well-wishes, were deemed relevant, quite a few were seen as inappropriate and poorly timed, prompting marketers to examine the thin line between helpful public service and exploitation of a disaster.
Clothing retailer American Apparel was one such company to come under fire after it sent out a mid-storm e-mail offering discounts to customers in the states most affected by Sandy. “In case you’re bored during the storm,” the ad said, “just Enter SANDYSALE at Checkout.” Within minutes, the barrage of angry tweets and blog posts came rolling in.
“Hey @americanapparel people have died and others are in need. Shut up about your #Sandy sale,” one tweet read.
Dov Charney, the company’s controversial CEO, remained unapologetic.
“Was it a mistake? I don’t know… The reality was there were a lot of people stuck at home in front of the Internet,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek during an interview about the fallout from the ad. “I don’t think our marketing guys made a mistake. Part of what you want to do in these events is keep the wheels of commerce going.”
In Boston, local burrito chain Boloco prompted “more hate mail in a 60 minute span than at any other time” in its history after it sent out a promotional e-mail assuring its customers the eatery would be open during the storm. The message was quickly followed up with both an apology and an explanation.
“For the record, we have allowed all team members who need or want to go home to do so,” John Pepper, the company’s CEO wrote. “We stay open because we employ people on an hourly basis who rely on Boloco being open to pay their bills and care for their families. When we close, they make no money.”
For Charney, the wheels of business had to keep turning—hurricane or not.
“We generated tens of thousands of dollars from the sale, but we’ll probably lose a million dollars from this (storm) event at a minimum,” he said. “We’re here to sell clothing. I’m sleeping well at night knowing this was not a serious matter.”