Was AT&T’s 9/11 tribute really “that” tacky?

The Internet is up in arms over AT&T’s Facebook commemoration of the September 11 attacks. Personally, I don’t get the anger.

AT&T posted a picture of a man’s hand holding up an iPhone showing the light memorial to the World Trade Center that went up in NYC a few years ago (and actually may still be up, I’m not really sure).  At the top of the post it simply says “Never Forget.”

Here’s the actual Facebook post from AT&T, courtesy of Buzzfeed.  Many people – though not me, and I’m sincerely curious what you folks think – felt that this was AT&T crassly taking advantage of 9/11 to sell phones.

Here’s the offending commemoration:

ATT-ad-for-911I don’t get it.

The anger, I mean.

Everyone hated it.  And I mean everyone.  But not me.  I thought it was kind of well done.  Inspired even.

First off, let me just say, I’m one who thinks we’ve remembered September 11 more than enough at this point.  I was in Washington, DC that day, and discovered, unbeknownst to me before, that I had a view of the Pentagon from my 10th floor window. At least a view of the Pentagon when it’s on fire and smoking across the entire DC skyline.

Over the following few weeks on non-stop sirens 24 hours a day, and reports of security outside the White House putting on gas masks, and planning escape routes with my friends who had cars just in case there was a chemical attack or a dirty bomb, I was pretty convinced we were all going to die. The last thing I need is anyone reminding me about something I’ve been trying to forget for going on 12 years now.

Having said that.  Much of the country seems to be rather big on reminding us to “never forget” something we never could, so I’m a bit perplexed as to what golden rule AT&T broke regarding commemorating September 11 in the “wrong” way.  I’m not entirely convinced that I’ve witnessed much of the “right” way.

Back to AT&T’s “Never Forget” social media posts.  They used a picture of a phone.  Yeah, and?  It’s AT&T.  They’re a phone company.  So I’m not surprised that they’d use a phone as a way of commemorating 9/11.  It’s not like they indicated the price of the phone, or in any other way suggested they were having a special 9/11 fire sale (“Never forget… you can simultaneously call for help during a terrorist attack AND surf the Internet for the nearest escape route on an AT&T iPhone! Can’t do that on Verizon!”)

So is it just me?  Am I the only one who isn’t terribly offended by the AT&T commemoration, beyond the fact that I’m over everyone’s over-commemoration of this national tragedy?

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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53 Responses to “Was AT&T’s 9/11 tribute really “that” tacky?”

  1. Roman Berry says:

    It wasn’t a tribute, it was an ad, corporate branding and all, and yes, it really was that tacky.

  2. ckg1 says:

    Now THAT is something we should get pissed about.

  3. Jessica Nix says:

    That’s a very kind sentiment. Here is what I think. The
    AT&T picture is “how AT&T” the mobile giant would show its
    respect to 911. Each person/group expresses their sentiment in a manner
    befitting them. So why was it called tacky for a mobile giant to post a hand
    holding a phone? It did not look like advertisement, AT&T is a household
    name. Why would the company need to advertise during this occasion? I saw this
    as AT&T’s version of showing AT&T’s respect. When I send a special
    message I’m going to use my favorite colors, favorite font. It’s tailored to
    me. This image says AT&T will never forget.

  4. Big Rich says:

    I agree with you John. This is my first time reading of this and my curiosity took me on a trip across 4 other sites that seem to be angry just to be angry until I found your view the same as mine. For a moment, I was thinking I was missing a great deal, but I’m not. The ad does not have any branding on it, the phone is dark, and I too remember that day, and went to see those lights in person as well, and I don’t see anything wrong with the ad. I do think it’s important to pay respects to the more than 3000 people that lost their lives and not to mention the countless others both nationally and internationally that this event impacted. But in my view, there is nothing wrong with AT&T saying that they will never forget. So what are they to do next year…just stay quiet? Our nation is becoming a nation of overreactors. Lets get back to things that are important like Vladimir Putin making some valid points with his NY Times Op Ed.

  5. JTinCA says:

    A fabulous Guy Fawkes sort of thing?

  6. Max_1 says:

    Its a product placement!
    Pure and simple.

    Marketing 101.

    It would be different had Apple had placed a wordy ad remembering the lives lost…

    They put their phone square dab in the middle of the memorial, as if to say, remember, buy me!

    Is THAT what 9/11 has become about? Buy me product placement ads?

  7. usagi says:

    All communications from a corporation, especially one the size of AT&T, will naturally be viewed as marketing, doubly so in a social media context where essentially all they do is market. In the current environment, there are no good corporate citizens, there are only marketing opportunities. Considering the corporations themselves created this environment to maximize shareholder value, I have a hard time feeling sympathy for them when they stumble over a line they shouldn’t have crossed, even if they didn’t realize it was there. Either they didn’t do their homework on gauging the reaction or they gauged it incorrectly. In either case, this is a huge fail for their marketing department, and they have no one to blame but themselves.

  8. ehmkec says:

    In loving memory of Sandy Hook victims – Buy IPhones! In loving memory of Aurora Shooting victims – Buy IPhones! In loving memory of Hurricane Katrina victims – Buy IPhones! In loving memory of Syrian Poison victims – Buy IPhones! Well, it does suck to do this.

  9. Yes, someone else caught that. Though I kind of like security putting on gay masks. :)

  10. omg someone had a $9.11 special? God someone should aggregate all of these commercialism stories re 911

  11. Yeah, that’s why I chose to write about it. I saw all the outrage amongst the political folks I follow, then looked and thought, that’s actually kind of cool. Anyway, always worth fleshing these things out.

  12. Excellent response, thank you.

  13. I just didn’t take it as marketing. I took it as companies doing what companies do, which includes honoring holidays and scary days. Didn’t companies run full page ads after 9/11? I’d be curious to look back and see if they did – but I think companies do “weigh in” when national tragedies happen, or commemorations. It’s part of the whole being a good corporate citizen thing more than the “we’re trying to cell iphones based on mass murder” – at least that’s how it struck me.

  14. Rob says:

    The thing is, there really is no product placement in here. The device is what looks to be a blackberry z10, but you don’t see the blackberry logo anywhere, you don’t see the AT&T logo anywhere? All you see is the picture. There is no problem with AT&T, a PHONE company, commemorating 9/11 in a way that they are familiar with. They sell phones, so it only makes sense that they would in some way, use a phone in the picture. Seriously some people get so offended over nothing. Stop creating an issue when there isn’t one. Please

  15. kimberly537 says:

    my best frends mom just got a nearly new yellow Nissan Murano SUV only from working part time off a laptop… this post w­w­w.J­A­M­20.c­o­m

  16. Sam_Handwich says:

    I’m more offended that Americans have been hellbent on erecting another phallic bullseye in the same location.

  17. ronbo says:

    The image reminds me of the creation of Frankenstein. Ironic.

  18. goulo says:

    Yes… but a large part of how those wars were enabled (not to mention the vastly increasing surveillance state activities) was thanks to continually exploiting people’s obsession with 9/11. It’s a bad sign of the US psyche that 9/11 is still such an exploited symbol for emotional manipulation.

  19. SkippyFlipjack says:

    I’d agree if they were saying, say, “Boston Strong” in the days following the marathon bombing. But there are two things that make it clear they’re trying to sell something and drive revenue: a) the picture of the phone (it’s no defense that they’re a phone company; if they’re really just sending a ‘human message’ they skip the product placement); and b) the request to never forget something we wouldn’t actually forget. It’s crass.

  20. Max_1 says:

    … Bush did say, “GO SHOPPING!”

    You don’t see any problems with MARKETING a consumer item off the deaths of 9/11?

    What should I market off you, then?

  21. Mark_in_MN says:

    I think part of the problem is that some people automatically assume that every corporate communication to the world at large is always (cynically?) trying to sell something or drive revenue. There is no room, as far as some are concerned, for a simple human message from the people at a company. There has to be an angle to it.

    I think that approach is the cynical and crass one. (Even if 95-98% of all such corporate message are indeed sales and revenue driven.)

  22. slappymagoo says:

    I have a two hour commute (with a view along the way of where the towers once stood) and just finished a 4 mile walk, so I had a little time to ponder the day’s events.

    John, if you were at the site with a friend, and you were taking a picture of the site and your friend took a picture of you taking the picture and you thought it looked neat and opted to tweet that image…I’d have no problem. I’ve had a problem with anyone using 9/11 either as a direct sales tool (like the golf course offering 9 holes for $9.11 today) or an indirect public relations ploy (like AT&T did). You are perhaps cutting them some slack because the image is so striking, but that doesn’t mean using it is right. What AT&T is doing is trying to give you teh warm fuzzies about one of the biggest corporations on the planet, so maybe, you know, NOT KNOW, but when you’re in the market for a new phone…I know this is dreadfully 2012 of me, but…call me maybe? (done in my best stammering Hugh Grant accent). It’s a long-term marketing ploy designed as an act of empathy, an attempt for a corporation tell the world “hey man (dramatic pause, 2, 3, 4) WE GET IT. 9/11. Effed up, amirite? We’re all in this together. I mean…yeah…but still…that image is damn sharp, isn’t it?”

    It may have been the least offensive tie-in, but that doesn’t make it inoffensive. In fact to argue it is the least offensive 9/11 tie-in is a little like a group of women in their 50s arguing over who was the most talented Osmond brother. Even if one of them could be proven right, who gives a ****? It’s not a conversation worth having.

    With all the emotions people felt during the attacks – fear, anger, grief (to say nothing of those who lost loved ones during the attack, thinking of what they should have said or not have said the last time they lost that person), what we all felt as a nation was a sense of helplessness, and hopelessness. You touched on it, that feeling that we will die at any moment We couldn’t grasp What Might Come Next, and we couldn’t think about ANYTHING ELSE BUT What Might Come Next.

    The whole “Never Forget” campaign is a passive one. It celebrates and sanctifies the moment where we all felt helpless and hopeless, instead of what we subsequently did…what we could have done…AND WHAT WE COULD STILL DO.

    AT&T not only pulled a crass stunt, it was a cheap-ass stunt. If they really wanted us to Never Forget, they could have done something at least a little more progressive or pro-active, take an initiative. Start or contribute to a fund for First Responders and survivors whose insurance policies still don’t cover all their event-related health problems. Ask us to contribute or assist with our local perhaps-volunteer fire departments. Hell, even if they had suggested we should all try to donate blood over the next 30 days, that would have been something more substantive and more productive than a pretty picture. To me it all smacks of “we want you to think we care, we just don’t want to expend a lot of effort doing it.” Which arguably is still better than that horrendously tacky Budweiser ad featuring the Clydesdales bowing out of respect to Ground Zero.

    Bottom line, there are probably very few businesses that can relate their products or services to 9/11 in a way that doesn’t smack of opportunism. So, all you businesses trying to relate your products or services to 9/11? Stop. Just stop. Tell your in-house ad agencies to take the day off. We’ll still be consumers tomorrow. We don’t need you to remind us about That Day; every year on That Day there are plenty of reminders on TV 24/7, talking heads and politicians and pundits proving how much they “get it.” We don’t need you to “get it” or show us how much you “get it.” If Romney is right and corporations are people too my friends, then friends don’t let friends exploit national tragedies for public relations purposes. Give me the key to the Twitter account; you’ve had enough.

  23. mirror says:

    God damn Germans. Maybe some more precision bombing?

  24. mirror says:

    I was going to say this exact thing in response to you post above. To me, all 9/11 activities are in poor taste while we have first responders and veterans having care and benefits withheld by right wing tax dodgers and their politician lap dogs.

  25. Houndentenor says:

    I agree that it was in poor taste. But if I had to get outraged every time I saw something in poor taste, I’d need to make outrage my full time job (and work 80 hours a week or more).

  26. bbock says:

    And I don’t ever recall seeing things being advertised with symbols of Perl Harbor’s devastation.

  27. Houndentenor says:

    Some of were there. Forget? Not possible. And where are all these “never forget” people when it comes time to pay for medical care for the rescue workers and others affected by those events?

  28. bbock says:

    It’s because they are showing a product. They are commercializing a tragedy. That’s kind of offensive. They would have been better off to either do nothing, or to just show the picture, without displaying it on a product. I’m not offended by it. But I don’t think it’s in good taste. What next? Are we going to put it on our box of cereal? Maybe an ad for lightbulbs? It’s in poor taste.

  29. Houndentenor says:

    People were offended by THAT? When you couldn’t walk past a tv all day that wasn’t show the planes hit the buildings? Really? Showing a memorial is not offensive. Showing disaster porn to people who were there without warning? That’s a problem.

  30. Indigo says:

    I like it. I ‘d just as soon we not act like 9/11 is a high holy day, though.

  31. karmanot says:

    Ah, the Marriott—that Mormon handmaiden of the roadside residence.

  32. karmanot says:

    I’m just sick of it. I don’t want to carry that grief any longer, particularly when it’s a commodity, packaged and sold as novelty. Enough already. We’ll never forget and there is a graceful dignity in the silence of that memory.

  33. Naja pallida says:

    I’m sure there’s a reason AT&T’s logo is a Death Star… anyway, I think I’ll save my outrage for the actual atrocities involved with 9/11 derangement syndrome, including taking this country to over a decade of war, and using it as a pretense for shredding the Constitution. I don’t care if AT&T wants to use it to sell a couple more ad buys.

  34. karmanot says:

    I’m with you on this one.

  35. nicho says:

    Just when you think things can’t get any tackier and inappropriate, a police group is selling Boston Bomber Manhunt calendars as a fundraiser.


    Order now and you will get it by Christmas — guaranteed.

  36. Will says:

    I hate AT&T and like you I was near Congress and the White House and thought we were going to die. And I hate most 9/11 references. But this ad looks respectful and is kind of cool.

  37. Shlomo von Glickstein says:

    I HATE at&t. i will always hate at&t. at&t caved to and enabled the handover of american privacy in the wake of 9/11…. i wish them HELL… i hope they rot….

  38. Jonas Grumby says:

    Yeah I didn’t get why people got in a twist.

  39. BeccaM says:

    I’m not offended, but I continue to be irritated by the fetishization of an act of terrorism.

    Hell, how can we possibly forget when every corporation, every politician and leader, every pundit on TV invokes 11 September 2001 to serve every conceivable agenda?

    In a way, it feels to me like the whole “#NeverForget” meme is like when a crazy person tells you in obsessive detail about the exact moment when they experienced their first psychotic break. Only in America’s case, it was the entire country.

  40. usagi says:

    I know I always wait until Lusitania Day to pick up my fresh bed linens during the sales.

  41. Monoceros Forth says:

    Touché. I can’t think of a smart-arse answer to that one. I want to say that Pearl Harbor was different; the facile comparison between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor has been made many times and it’s bothered me but maybe it shouldn’t.

  42. mirror says:

    Every year of over the top 9-11 fetishism encourages Al Qaeda and any other groups like it. I’m sick of it. And the media involvement is all about selling product, whether its the news or a commercial sponsoring the news. 9-11 is like Valentines Day now, a tool for getting people to pay attention so you can advertise to them. What is the difference between this and a news paper or television station running a 9-11 commemoration piece?

  43. silas1898 says:

    Not offensive to me at all.

  44. usagi says:

    Offended? No. Put off? Yes. Nowhere near in the league of the golf course running the $9.11 special, but they can be forgiven since it was a single person who made a bad decision.

    This had better have been signed off by the top Director of Advertising or it had no business going out, and it had better have been focus group tested extensively before the sign off (and if both of those are true, AT&T should look at their focus process and see where it screwed up).

    There is no good way to thread the needle of using 9/11 imagery to sell a product (you don’t see Pearl Harbor advertising specials in Hawai’i even today). Corporate advertisers are trying to cash in on the day, and there will always be people offended by that (I have some particularly cranky family members who don’t approve of Independence Day sales). The only approach I can see possibly working is something in the vein of “Thank you, First Responders.” Anything else invites criticism for what the late, lamented Regretsy called “Tragicrafting“: “the act of slapping together some commemorative bullshit and putting it up for sale before the body gets cold. After all, it’s only by making money that the healing can begin.”

  45. nicho says:

    Pearl Harbor still kind of sticks in people’s craw.

  46. Monoceros Forth says:

    ZOMG 9-11 TOO SOON…oh, brother. Have any other comparable events been fetishized to this extent? Were people wringing their hands about the sinking of the Lusitania still in 1927?

  47. nicho says:

    Actually quite classy, when you compare it to Marriott offering free mini muffins from 8:45 AM to 9:15 AM in remembrance of those who died.


    And not quite as idiotic as Boston’s Logan airport holding disaster drills today which involved setting off smoke bombs on the airport.

  48. Bomer says:

    Yeah, not seeing the outrage. It’s basically a photo of what most people are doing with their phones.

  49. kmcdevitt says:

    I’m not offended either. I don’t understand where people get this vast wellspring of outrage and indignation. It’s exhausting. There are plenty of things to really get outraged about, without this petty crap.

  50. JTinCA says:

    John – I think you wanted “…security outside the White House putting on GAS masks,..”

  51. basenjilover says:

    I’m not offended at all. Stop feigning anger and get over it, people. We went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq with billions and billions of dollars wasted (KBR still being enriched, thanks Cheney) and foreign lives (including innocent women and children) still being lost….

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