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.


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.


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