Marketers are rushing to help the victims of Japan's largest earthquake on record and the resulting tsunami that struck last week. But companies should make sure they're being extra thoughtful in order to avoid backlash from consumers who might interpret efforts as self-promotional.
Consumers -- now familiar with all manner of cause-marketing campaigns backing everything from breast cancer to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina -- are more on guard than ever for anything that has a whiff of a veiled attempt at marketing, observed Michael Belch, a professor of marketing and consumer behavior at San Diego State University. "You have to be careful if you are trying to help out; the last thing you want to do is have people say that you're trying to take advantage of a disaster like this one to benefit your own company."
Making matters more dicey for marketers is that social media permits the spread of accusations of insensitivity faster than ever. "Consumers are more savvy but at the same time, they also have more opportunity to pick on something," Mr. Belch said. "That's the double-edged sword of social media. It just takes one person to perceive [and effort] the wrong way, and word travels quicker."
Microsoft learned that lesson this weekend when it launched a social-media campaign linked to the events in Japan. Within hours, a tweet blasted to nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter sparked a backlash from consumers who interpreted the move as a way for the tech company to capitalize on the earthquake victims' plight.
On Saturday morning, the following was sent out from the feed for Microsoft's search engine, Bing: "How you can #SupportJapan - http://binged.it/fEh7iT. For every retweet, @bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims, up to $100K."
It wasn't long before hundreds took to the social-media platform to criticize the company for being "tasteless" and accuse Microsoft of using "tragedy as a tool for marketing" its search engine and the @bing Twitter feed. Comedian Michael Ian Black chastised the company from his Twitter account, and soon consumers were using the hashtag #fuckyoubing.
Here's a few sample tweets in response to Bing's snafu:
@domcaruso: Great lesson in Bing bung-up: there's marketing and there's human tragedy. Keep them separate. #fuckyoubing
@jspwilliams: Dear Microsoft, that's not how it works, you're supposed to do something good first, then you get good publicity from it. #fuckyoubing
@TerenceAaron: Soon the word bing will become a verb for exploiting a disaster. #fuckyoubing
@convexmirror: Hey, remember how Google set up a people finder to help Japanese find loved ones and didn't brag about it? #fuckyoubing
@daspringate: Coming soon! Microsoft branded Tsunami commemorative mugs and T-shirts. 20% of every sale goes to good causes! #fuckyoubing
About seven hours after launching its initial campaign, Microsoft tweeted this: "We apologize the tweet was negatively perceived. Intent was to provide an easy way for people to help Japan. We have donated $100K."
"After hearing that there was some negative feedback, our Bing team apologized and made the $100,000 donation to the Japanese Red Cross immediately," a Microsoft representative told Ad Age in an email. "The intention was to raise awareness about the impact of the disaster in Japan and give people an easy way to help. The last thing we want is for this to distract from that effort. We hope that people around the world will continue to build awareness and raise money for the victims of this tragedy."
To be safe, companies should avoid touting the fact they've donated funds, Mr. Belch of San Diego State said. "If consumers happen to find out great, but [marketers] should only promote [giving] through their own websites or through annual reports."