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Lovely but is it also tacky?

The unexpected death of prince created a maelstrom of activity in the social spheres. Not surprisingly, a bunch of brands wanted to, ahem, pay their respects as well.

I definitely agree with Adfreak in that some fared better than others. Yes, to the Minnesota Viking’s (Prince’s home state) understated salute. Definitely no, to the props from Hamburger Helper. However sincere their words, the goofy Helping Hand logo makes it all insanely glib.

But the bigger question is should brands be doing this sort of thing at all? To the degree you feel advertisers can actually have “conversations” with consumers likely determines how you feel about them taking on social issues, being political, or, in this case, paying tribute to a dead person.

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An Unhelpful hand…

Part of the problem is that everything a brand says or does is, on a primary level, copy. For example, any words or pictures McDonald’s or Budweiser tweets out are, by definition, self-serving. Therefore, any attempts to “be real” must be met with skepticism.

However, as the examples in the above-linked article demonstrate, our ambivalence can at least be tempered by the use of inspired creativity or simple understatement. With few exceptions, I don’t think it’s ever eliminated. Clearly, this is infinitely harder to manage in painful circumstances (death, earthquakes, etc.) than joyful ones (winning a playoff game, birthdays, etc.) In tough times, it might be best to hold off altogether. As lovely as Jim Beam’s purple wax image is it’s still an ad. And what if, God forbid, it comes out that Prince overdosed on drugs or alcohol? That makes the connection to Jim Beam worse than awkward.

Still, if thousands upon thousands of people are willing to follow a consumer packaged goods account on Twitter or befriend a fast food restaurant on Facebook then I suppose the brands might as well give these people something other than coupons and contact information.

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In my last job, I was asked by a colleague to take down a Facebook post because it apparently offended someone in the office. I had offered a less than politically correct view on the hot button issue regarding race relations (or lack of) in America.

Reluctantly, I removed the post. Not because I rethought my position and came to the conclusion I was wrong. Nor was I upset that my post offended someone. For what it’s worth, many people were supportive of my opinion. It’s not about that. Rather, I took it down because I concluded my role as an officer of the company took precedent over my personal opinions. Said another way, I put my professional reputation and currency ahead of my social reputation and currency. It would not be the first time. Rightly or wrongly, I usually put work ahead of personal matters.

Yet, the event has continued to bother me. Partly because of the post’s emotional weight (which I won’t go into here) but also because I feel like a coward for removing it. After all, it was on my personal Facebook page. While hardy benign, the post was not racist or classist or sexist or, in my view, “ist” in any way. It was merely a provocative take on current events, which I feel is totally valid on social media. I did not (and would not) post the piece on LinkedIn or on any professional forum.

Still, I realize work and personal life have converged like never before. People as well as companies have become like one thing. If a CEO Tweets something inappropriate her company takes it on the chin. People will judge the firm as they judge the person.

Back in the day, the artist and his art existed separately. For example, T.S. Eliot was an “on again, off again” anti-Semite but people (even Jews) appreciated and studied his poetry. There are countless such examples, historical and modern. Recall director, Lars Von Trier’s recent controversial comments at Cannes and the subsequent toll it took to his career. He did not stand down and he paid dearly for it.

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TS Eliot: Poet. Hater.

I know my controversial Facebook post was not hateful. However, I do not doubt someone who disagreed with it might interpret it (and me) as hateful. Therefore, I took it down. I did not want to bring negative attention to my company.

We are all learning (and struggling) with this. Some play it safer than others. And while I think playing it safe is often the equivalent of being dull as a bag of dirt I did not want to risk my company’s reputation and my place in it. Would you?

I have always worn many hats: husband, father, brother, son, citizen, officer, employee, Christian, Jew, drinker, non-drinker, author and so on. In the age of social media, knowing which hat to wear and when is increasingly difficult.