It's tragically easy to make your company look bad. Spain-based clothing and accessories brand Zara did it in 2014 with what appeared to be a yellow Jewish star. The same year, Urban Outfitters pulled a gaffe with a Kent State-themed sweatshirt that looked spattered with blood, as in the 1970 shootings of students by the Ohio National Guard.

But you might think that some things are recent and tragic enough so that business owners and marketers wouldn't forget. You know, like 9/11. Research psychologist Dana Rose Garfin of the University of California, Irvine writes that the event and its anniversaries are examples of how "people can experience collective trauma solely through the media and report symptoms that resemble those typically associated with direct trauma exposure." There has been a widespread impact on physical and mental health.

But, this year as apparently always, there are companies that decide 9/11 is a great hook for a marketing campaign. On the tenth anniversary, when many big companies decided to commemorate the date, some experts said that the best way to honor the date isn't to ask for donations for worthy causes or offer heartfelt remembrances, no matter how sincere. Instead, it was to steer clear, as the New York Times reported.

"We've been saying to people, there's probably no right way to do this," said J. Walker Smith, executive chairman at the Futures Company consultancy, which is to release this month a report on public attitudes toward 9/11. "If I were a marketer, I would let the moment pass," Mr. Smith said. "Anything you do could be seen as self-serving or disrespectful."

The problem is that bad attempts to use 9/11 as a reason for marketing have become an annual affair.Whether ill-conceived remarks on social media or actual sales, there's virtually no way to do this well.

And yet, companies keep trying. There's the Texas mattress store, as KTVK-TV reported on its website, that has received a raft of criticism over a video commercial emphasizing the sale of any size mattress for a "twin" price. At the end of the video, people knocked over two towers of mattresses while someone else faced the camera and said, "Never forget."

The store owner ultimately had to issue an apology, according to Mic.com.

And there was the Florida Walmart store that built a Twin Towers display of soda under a banner that read, "We will never forget," according to an Orlando Weekly story.

Now Walmart, which reportedly approved the idea, according to a company spokesperson quoted in the story, is probably wishing that it could.

You may think you've got the solution to the conundrum. Maybe you're a singular genius. But do you want to roll the dice to see if you can avoid a social media backlash, shaming in the press, and enough bad PR to probably hurt your sales for some time? As someone pointed out in a comment on the Orlando Weekly piece, this isn't a holiday. Rather, it's still a day of mourning. Have some respect and avoid shooting yourself in the foot.

Published on: Sep 9, 2016