Three Advertising Lessons To Learn From AT&T’s Failed 9/11 Tweet

Current event themed ads are all the rage on social media these days. Advertisers are tweeting and tumbling their brands into moments ranging from the microscopic to the monumental (i.e. The Royal Baby). Some brands have had great success with these real time engagement campaigns while others, well…

Earlier this week, AT&T tweeted this 9/11 themed picture, which stirred up a sharknado of public indignation. You might agree with @bryanjoiner, who tweeted the following flowchart:

But is it really that simple? As Adweek noted, the mobile network provider tweeted a similar picture last year to much better results (after the jump). So why did one tweet swim while the other sank?


AT&T’s caption: “Standing tall.”

In breaking down my answer to that question, I want to talk about a little bit of ad psychology and introduce three ways I believe all brands can improve their real time advertising. Taken with a little common sense, these lessons will ensure that your next ad tweet, at the very least, floats. Let’s get started.

Whether they are conscious of it or not, many creatives mistakenly apply balance theory in real time advertising (“If they like cats, and we say *we* like cats, they will like us!”). They believe that they can make people fonder of their brand or product simply by interjecting it into a positive conversation, holiday or meme. Au contraire.

“But wait, I saw a Snickers ad the other day that was just weird and funny. Don’t ads rely on vaguely associating feelings with products?”

Yes, some do. But ads connecting a product with a somewhat unrelated cue (say Coca Cola and Polar Bears) mainly change temporary impressions rather than long term attitudes. The Elaboration Likelihood Model (or ELM, pictured below) calls this the peripheral route. It is best used on products that consumers are likely to buy soon after seeing a commercial, like a Snickers bar.

Fair warning: Depending on where you work, mentioning the Elaboration Likelihood Model could earn you either a promotion or a wedgie that would make Miley Cyrus's performance at the VMAs look tame.

Don’t be intimidated. Embrace the ELM. Let its power flow through you.

On the other hand, the ELM tells us that when your message is salient (timely or otherwise relevant), people are more likely to pay attention to it (duh!) and develop long term attitudes based on it— your message takes the central route. This is good for a product like AT&T service, which needs to build lasting attitudes. However, when your audience is in central route, they need some kind of logical or emotional appeal. Real time engagement advertising clearly requires these more thoughtful types of messages, bringing us to our first tip.


Lesson 1: Your brand has to do more than just show up to the party.


Deciding what that “more” should look like can be difficult. Before we solve that one, I want to mention one thing that both of the AT&T ads do well: depicting their product. Showing your product in use is the layup of advertising. It places your brand in a person’s life in an intelligible way. A Clorox commercial shows a woman scrubbing a dirty tub before giving her child a bath. Any mom watching can relate a cleaning product to the desire to protect and the oldschool role of a mother. Swish.

But even when you are using a layup, you have to be in the right position. All advertising is about mediating a relationship between your brand and your audience. When the moment is part of your medium, finding the right relationship is perhaps more crucial than ever.

I ran into this dilemma while trying to advertise Harley Davidson motorcycles to African Americans. My team’s campaign tied the history of black motorcyclists to modern use, and we needed to engage users on twitter during Black History Month. But we were concerned that relating our hashtag to the month might be construed —like AT&T’s ad was— as an unwelcome attempt to squeeze money out of an observance the brand had no part in. After a lot of head scratching, I stumbled into something AT&T clearly missed.

I realized that there were specific ways African Americans related to Black History Month and discussed the topic on social media. Eventually, my team settled on “#legacy” for our twitter trend. This hashtag would become a shared extension, secondarily, of our campaign’s tagline (“Discover your legacy.”), and primarily, of the awe-inspiring inheritance that is African American History. Twitter users would be encouraged to tweet about what they felt their legacy was, both in terms of what they had received from their ancestors and what they hoped to pass on to their descendents. This would be “presented,” instead of owned and run by the Harley brand. Rather than trying to wedge our product between our audience and something they admired and reflected on, we resolved to have Harley Davidson reflect and celebrate alongside them.


Lesson 2: Real time ads need to create an appealing relationship between the consumer, product, and event.


You might have already guessed the method I will suggest for choosing that relationship: look to your target. See how they think of, use, and speak on social media about your product and the event at hand. In the case of the AT&T ads, here’s how one depicts an inviting role for the product and audience while the other does not:


Perspective Looking upwards denotes admiration, hope. Looking out is sort of ambiguous.
Distance Standing near the tower seems citizenly, even participatory. While both ads likely use stock photos, the skyline has that “I paid for this” look. The distance is almost touristy.
Composition The focus is clearly on the tower, with the daylit hand and phone giving the photo a sense of authenticity. With the Tribute in Light dwarfed by the artificially lit hand and phone, it is no wonder twitter users cried, “Ad!”
The Relationship “Standing Tall” depicts AT&T helping you capture and share a real, patriotic moment. “Never Forget” depicts AT&T getting between you and what would have been solemn remembrance.

Even if someone overhauled the art to be more respectful and tributary, I bet AT&T’s audience would still rather identify with a proud moment of midmorning reflection than a somber moment of remembrance in the night (especially when they’re viewing the tweet during the day). Why?

It is possible that the differences between these two ads, the relationships they depict, and the reception they met on social media affirm a cultural truth about 9/11: maybe we are more ready to look forward than back. And if the star spangled years following 2001 taught us anything, perhaps it is that Americans would rather salve their wounds with national pride than linger in mourning.

At the end of the day, AT&T will mean something different to you than Verizon or T Mobile, and the 9/11 tweets may have changed what that is. Jack Trout and Al Ries got famous telling us that good brands own a specific territory in consumers’ minds. I would argue that they titled their classic book “Positioning” instead of “Associating” for a reason. This third and final tip applies to all modern advertising, but it is certainly most important in real time engagement advertising.


Lesson 3: Your territory can not be an island.


“My own definition [of positioning] is ‘what the product stands for, and who it is for.” -David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy is an advertising legend, but even his explanation of this concept is missing something. Today, positioning is about what a brand means not only in relation to the competition or the consumer, but to everything else. Alongside real time advertising’s news, holidays, and moments, we can easily include other cultural objects like memes and language. The best brands represent more than their own products. They carve out meaningful spots in our culture.

“But should they?”

The flow chart tweeted by @bryanjoiner expresses an opinion that many people agree with: ads have no place in society’s reverent moments. I humbly disagree. As long as brands are built by people, they should be allowed to have a heart, to throw pebbles at tech giants and poke fun at Super Bowl power outages. I believe that products and services, our phones, clothes, and even bleach have a unique place in our lives. Making that place really special is the what every advertiser should aspire to. Like print, radio, and television, the moment is just another medium in which we can do exactly that.

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