The Sensitive Art of Marketing After a Tragedy

The shooting at Virginia Tech wasn't even a day old when Mobile Campus e-mailed a press release to technology reporters. "Everyone's asking why the students at Virginia Tech weren't notified of the shootings more quickly and efficiently," it began. "I'd like to suggest a story on a proven emergency-notification system." The system, naturally, is made by the company pitching the story. MIR3, another business that offers a similar mass-notification service, sent out a pitch of its own, claiming that universities had reacted to the Virginia Tech disaster by considering implementation of their technology. Several high-profile media companies, meanwhile, quickly bought shooting-related keywords to drive search engines to their coverage.

Are these examples of socially responsible marketing, or crass exploitation of tragedy? If technology can alert thousands of people via text message, e-mail and cell phone to a potentially life-threatening situation, is the aftermath of an atrocity the best moment to choose to push those products? And is it in bad taste for news outlets to sponsor links on Google? "It's a fine line," concedes Howard Ryan, CEO of Desktop Alert, which posted a corporate statement on its Web site expressing sympathy for the victims—and then pointing out: "Technology is readily available for mitigating these senseless and horrific tragedies." The company, which has since taken down the statement, also initially included links to rival firms to avoid appearing to seek profit from the killings. "We feel our accomplishments lend great credentials. It's so affordable, it's absurd," says Ryan.

The debate over marketing methods is likely to heat up as the initial shock over the shooting dies down. Some ad-and-media commentators, meanwhile, are careful to stress that it's the nature of the product being sold—rather than the selling itself—that needs to pass the taste test. "I have spent about two decades shaming advertisers for exploiting the grief and sentiment around national tragedies to burnish their own image," Bob Garfield, a longtime columnist for Advertising Age, tells NEWSWEEK. "This is very different. People have applications that could prevent the next catastrophe. Of course they have to use this opportunity not only to build their own businesses but to get important messages out."

Mass-notification companies weren't the only ones struggling to find a way to get a potentially relevant product in front of consumers this week. Media companies such as The New York Times, The Washington Post (also owned by NEWSWEEK's parent company), MSNBC.com (a technology partner to NEWSWEEK), Minnesota Public Radio and others sponsored results to Google searches for the words "Virginia shooting." It's hardly rare for media companies to purchase key words in the hopes of driving more traffic to their sites, but some online observers felt uncomfortable given the context. "It strikes me as incredibly tacky," writes Advertising Age's Ken Wheaton on the trade magazine's Web site.

Not all media specialists agree. Garfield, who also hosts National Public Radio's "On the Media," calls keyword buying "simply using Google for the purpose that it was intended." Vivian Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of The New York Times's Web site, nytimes.com, expresses a similar opinion. "This is nothing new and it's also something that's ubiquitous among news Web sites," she says. "Obviously, this is a horrific, tragic story, but we're a news organization. This is just another way to help us connect readers to our content." Schiller notes that there is no advertising on the Times's sponsored link to a "Virginia shooting" search. "We do this very carefully to make sure our supporting text isn't in the slightest bit sensational."

However, Charlie Tillinghast, the publisher and general manager of MSNBC.com, was less emphatic. Tillinghast told NEWSWEEK that he was unaware his site had been sponsoring the search terms. "We are not consciously sitting here saying, 'We should go buy "Virginia shooting",'" he says. "If we had known about this, we probably would have taken it down. It serves no purpose for us." Tillinghast believes that a firm hired by MSNBC to handle search- agent marketing may have been behind the keyword purchase.

Elsewhere online, private individuals had begun conducting their own debates on—and forays into—the marketing of tragedy. On eBay, some sellers promptly registered for domain names in questionable taste and rushed to sell them to the highest bidder. One user, under the name "lacway," was selling "vtkillings.org." Another, going as "number1spot_com" was trying to sell the domain names "virginiatechmurder.info" and "vtechmassacre.info"—among others—for $19.99. "Sure the auction is in bad taste to some people," number1spot_com—who refused to provide his or her real name—wrote in a response to a query from NEWSWEEK. "This is not the first nor the last auction created for items that are related to tragic events. I went ahead with the sale because if I didn't do it, some one else would have, plain and simple."

EBay says it will take down any listing violating its "offensive material policy." However, says spokesman Nichola Sharpe, it can take time to police the 6.6 million new listings that go up every day. "Appreciate that there are some that go up that we haven't gotten yet," she says. And more, no doubt, to come.