Every now and then you see something on the Internet that makes you stop and think. Sometimes it’s a viral video or meme that has taken over various social networks, other times it’s an adorably cute video of otters holding hands while they sleep (seriously…it’s so cute) and other times it’s a marketing campaign that just makes you think: “wow…whoever thought of that is not only stupid but insensitive and I hope they get fired”. Yup…this post is about the latter!

For those of you who are unaware the East Coast of the United States is currently bearing the brunt of Hurricane Sandy. Millions of people in New York and the surrounding states are without power, scores of people are trapped in their homes and we have seen a number of deaths both in the United States and other countries. The estimated damage of Hurricane Sandy will likely be in the billions of dollars at least and this will not included the priceless family heirlooms and memorabilia that is sure to be lost. This is truly a natural disaster that will test the resolve of the United States and all of those who are within the path of this perfect storm.

I don’t know who was staffing the marketing department at American Apparel when they devised this campaign but I know that they’re no longer there as of this morning. Basically AA thought that they would take advantage of the millions of people who would be stuck at home in the wake of this disaster and  would use whatever free time they have to shop online.

The ability to successfully ‘newsjack’ is a skill that many brands hope for in a good Community Manager. Essentially brands can take advantage of a sudden news story or event. We see it happen spontaneously such as with the recent Big Bird debate controversy and planned around holidays and memorable events such as Halloween. Sometimes the brands are incredibly successful in their job and manage to bring nothing but good press for a clever, pithy campaign that shows intelligence and humorous brains behind the social media team. But sometimes they fail. Sometimes they fail spectacularly. In this case American Apparel failed.

“Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.”

— Fashion Designer ‘Kenneth Cole’ tweeting amidst the Cairo uprising in 2011

It is never a good idea to try and capitalise on a disaster. Those that are suffering, either from the wrath of Mother Nature or from brutal oppressive regimes, are to be sympathised with rather than exploited for sales. It is a strategy that will almost inevitably raise the ire of the Internet and backlash against the company. The golden rule of social media marketing is this: It might feel clever to associate your brands, products or sales with something current and newsworthy…but choose your topics very, very carefully.