August 14th, 2014 by Maria Minsker

When Robin Williams died earlier this week, I, as many others, learned the news through Twitter. Once the word was out, there was an outpouring of support, tributes, video clips and other messages from fans, fellow actors, and news organizations. Though some may disagree, I personally find tremendous value in the kind of social media mourning wave that builds around the passing of a prominent figure. It was particularly comforting this time, when the deceased was one of my favorite actors and comedians. As the conversation surrounding Williams’ tragic death continued on Facebook and Twitter though, I couldn’t help but notice that notably silent were brands. So what happened to all the marketing?

On a typical day, my feed is flooded with promotions, campaign messages, and other marketing content, but in those few hours immediately after his death, brands were radio silent, and I commend them for that. Fast food giant Burger King, for one, apparently made a quick decision to pull a Promoted Trend–a national marketing campaign that typically costs more than $200,000 a day–as soon as the company noticed the kinds of conversations happening on the social network in the hours after Williams’ death.

The ad was a promotion for the return of Burger King’s famous chicken fries, but executives made the decision not to run it “out of respect for Robin Williams and his fans,” a BK rep told Adweek in an email. More power to Burger King, and to other brands that cancelled their scheduled tweets or changed the tone of their marketing after the news rocked the Internet.

When done tastefully and with great sensitivity to what’s going on in the real world, I think there’s a place for brand messaging in these situations. A few months ago we wrote a feature on marketing in the wake of a disaster. The piece lined up with the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, and while we chastised brands that turned the natural disaster into a gimmicky sales campaign, we complimented brands that were able to use their marketing platforms as a means of sharing information about valuable resources that they were making available in light of the events.

But these responses and efforts take time. When tragedy strikes, whatever it may be, the biggest mistake a brand can make is to appear insensitive, even if it’s entirely unintentional. Until marketers can determine the kind of marketing or messaging that would be most helpful or supportive given the situation, silence is golden.

And while we’re on the subject of marketing…

Here’s Robin Williams reciting some beautiful lines from Dead Poets Society in this touching ad. You’re welcome, Apple, for the free advertising.

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