PR Disaster in Wake of Natural Disaster

It has been exactly one year since Hurricane Sandy first hit the coastline of the United States. Much of the news media last October covered Hurricane Sandy and the damage that it caused. With all the focus on such a serious event it was important that brands and companies remained sensitive to the issue at hand. However this is exactly what several brands, including American Apparel, did not do. American Apparel was criticized for their promotion of their “Sandy Sale” during the storm. The ad stated, “In case you’re bored during the storm just Enter SANDYSALE at Checkout.” The sale was only available in the states that were most impacted by the storm, which included Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland.

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During this disaster consumers were most likely expecting to see messages that were heartfelt and encouraging, not promotional social media ads for clothing companies. This violation of expectancies caused by American Apparel created negative backlash from not only their consumers, but also the public. The Expectancy Violation Theory states that the outcome of negative communication may result in uncertainty in people’s behavior. A consumer replied to American Apparel’s ad by tweeting that she will forever boycott their stores. This consumer, along with many others, probably became uncertain if they wanted to purchase from this brand in the future.

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Another aspect of the Expectancy Violations Theory explains that reward from the violation can be either negative or positive.  In American Apparel’s case, the ‘reward’ was negative.  In most cases, a negative reward is met by socially acceptable behavior in attempt to correct any violation, but the CEO of American Apparel did the exact opposite.  In response to the unfavorable backlash,  he stated that, “I don’t think our marketing guys made a mistake. Part of what you want to do in these events is keep the wheels of commerce going,” he told Business Week. “People shopped on it. We generated tens of thousands of dollars from the sale, but we’ll probably lose a million dollars from this (storm) event at a minimum. We’re here to sell clothing. I’m sleeping well at night knowing this was not a serious matter.”

Over the years, “Made in the U.S.A.” has become American Apparel’s trademark marketing approach, but in this particular situation, nothing could be less depicting of American ideals and morals than this failed attempt to generate income.  This and other failed public relations ventures should be seen as an example of what not to do during a national crisis.  The way we see it, during crises, PR specialists and media relations professionals should proceed in one of two ways.  Either stray away from social media, or only produce messages that do not promote one’s brand.  In the long run, this situation did not make a lasting impact on American Apparel, but if you were the CEO, how would you have responded to this negative feedback? When have other brands violated your expectancies in a positive or negative way?

-Aaron Love, Kara Zimmerman, Rachel Clay, Rebecca Hobbs

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13 thoughts on “PR Disaster in Wake of Natural Disaster

  1. Although American Apparel is being completely insensitive to victims of the hurricane, this sale was probably a very smart move and I guarantee many company’s were jealous of their very risky tactic. Instead of loosing a tremendous amount of money due to many locations of stores being closed, they gained a portion of the profit they were going to loose back. Great companies make bold, powerful moves. I don’t think this should ever hurt a companies reputation solely because they are taking advantage of a situation and trying to make the best of what could of been extreme loss to their company. American Apparel was doing what they thought was a good for their company.

  2. The quote about “we’re here to sell clothes” is the most damning. Never let your specialization get in the way of your humanity. That’s why we push core skills along with the more specialized skills of the major. He is hiding behind his job description so he doesn’t have to strive for greatness.

  3. Over the years American Apparel has done things like this. They seem not to care about the big picture just about making a buck. It is sad that a company would try to use a disaster that ruined 1000’s of people’s lives and try to put a spin on it like it was a good thing. What’s next will they put the Twin Towers on a shit and say “who wants to go on plane ride?”
    Jacques R. Kochen

  4. One of the hardest hit areas during hurricane Sandy were the Jersey Shore and Staten Island and as a New Jersey resident who was there during the storm this comes off as extremely insensitive. I was fortunate during the storm and so was my family but many friends were not so lucky. Gas stations were closed with lines that were hours long and grocery stores out of power. Municipal buildings were distributing water because millions were without power. American Apparel appeared to be making a business move during such a regional disaster. Houses were decimated and American Apparel is putting on sales. At first glance it could be “oh they’re trying to help those people out by discounting their clothes.” Then it’s “they’re trying to make money off people who lost everything.” It was not a classy move and would expect more from any business.

    • Thank you for your perspective since you witnessed Hurricane Sandy first hand. American Apparel could have angled their ad in another way to make it seem like they were trying to help people out that were affected by the storm. However it was clear that they had no intention to help out people since the CEO did not try to save face when confronted with all the negative attention from the sale. We agree that we should expect more out of any business, no matter how large and well-known the brand is!

  5. Even though I am typically a fan of American Apparel, and their made in America clothing, this is a rather unacceptable decision by both marketing team, and owner. As professionals, we must understand both sides of the story. How is the public going to respond to this? How will this make us look? What are the positive and negative outcomes? Like this blog post says, as PR specialists during tragic or difficult times, either stay away from social media, or only post remarks that does not promote one’s brand.

  6. I think it is sad to see companies with such a negative outlook. It almost seems inhuman to not offer a helping hand to those in need, but instead profit off of their misfortune. In the aftermath of Katrina, I do remember hearing about Tide’s “Loads of Hope” program. Their program centered on the concept of offering free laundry services to those affected by the hurricane. Several other companies alongside Tide stepped forward during Katrina to help out. In my opinion, those are the companies that should be sought after, not ones like American Apparel whose aims appear to be rooted in greed and fortune.

  7. I cant believe that they did this. The most shocking part to me is not that they were trying to capitalize on a terrible disaster but that somewhere there was a room full of people and when this idea was pitched someone said ‘yes, that is a good idea’. It is baffling to me that American Apparel would do something like this, the negative repercussions must have been huge. Many people will probably take the same opinion as the one consumer who tweeted that she will ‘forever boycott their stores’. What was clearly intended as a clever gimmick, trying to make the most of a recent event in the news backfired into a wide spread issue. Aided by the world of social media

  8. I wish I could say that it is hard for me to believe that American Apparel would do this, but sadly, it is not. I think I am the most appalled at the way the CEO refused to offer an apology for what clearly upset many people, including their customers. I would have responded to the negative feedback on social media with an apology. I’m shocked that he would say that he is “sleeping well at night knowing this was not a serious matter”, considering that the sale depends on the wake of a natural disaster that wiped out many homes, leaving countless people without a place to sleep.

  9. I definitely don’t think the CEO handled the negative attention in the correct manner. I think he should have apologized to those who were upset by this promotion instead of selfishly stating that they are “here to sell clothing.” He could have at least offered his sympathy to those who were greatly affected by the disaster. This reminds me of when KFC offered the “Buckets for a Cure” a few years ago. I remember seeing this and thinking, “wow, this is a terrible idea!” I feel like a bucket of fried chicken is the opposite of what you need when you are battling breast cancer. I see that they were trying to show their support but I don’t think it was an effective way to do so.

  10. I’ve never heard of American Apparel, but I could definitely see how people could become upset over this advertising technique. It does seem incredibly insensitive to the real effects Hurricane Sandy had on the East Coast. I’m assuming they were trying to play to the crowd that hadn’t been affected by the storm, so in a sense I do get what they were trying to accomplish. However, it was ridiculous they didn’t consider the consequences of their actions. The fact American Apparel was concerned about customers’ boredom when families were losing their homes was incredibly insensitive, and it only made it worse when the CEO of American Apparel didn’t apologize. In my opinion, when you’ve outraged the public this way, you have to set your pride aside and take your wounds. I would’ve been rushing to apologize, even if I didn’t wholeheartedly believe I’d done anything wrong.

  11. As a former PR student, this is an absolute disaster, literally. I agree with the fact that you guys pointed out that this is not American ideals at all. I think that this was totally out of hand and that they went about marketing their product all wrong. Also, during a time of national need, that is probably not the smartest time to tweet or be on any social media for that matter. In this situation, American Apparel would need to hire a PR specialist to fix this crisis.

  12. This particular violation of marketing is sadly hilarious. American apparel is really ignorant to the fact of sensitivity in a time of natural disasters causing huge tragedies. In a sense, this was a very aggressive and hedonic way to convince the consumer that they can still afford products that were completely unnecessary at the time. Other than that reason this was a despicably desperate attempt to keep the effected states shopping at American Apparel. It was sad and shallow and very obvious to see through the manipulative tactic they were attempting to use.

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