Marketers Used to Get Away With (benefiting from) Murder

In 2001, Alan Jackson wrote a song about the murder of thousands of innocent Americans.  The song earned him multiple CMAs and a Grammy.  And, because he refuses to be transparent about how he spent the millions of dollars he earned from the song, we are left to assume it was a very profitable marketing move for him.  Twelve years later, AT&T somberly submitted a photo of a phone taking a picture of the changed Manhattan skyline on Twitter, and was publicly shamed for “commercializing” a tragedy.

What is the difference between these two scenarios?  Social Media.  The article below will argue that in today’s current social landscape, Alan Jackson could never write and market a song about murder and get away with it.


Below, it will be shown how networked consumers on social media are posing tough, moral questions for marketing managers.  The article will begin by reminding readers about a time when marketers could promote a brand around a national tragedy.  Next, a recent Twitter event will be offered as evidence that such a time in marketing history is long gone.  Last, a widely accepted “Ethical Reasoning Process” will be presented as a tool that marketers can use when addressing moral questions.

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you in the yard with your wife and children
Or working on some stage in L.A.?
Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke
Risin’ against that blue sky?
Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor
Or did you just sit down and cry? 
(Jackson, 2001)

Image credit: videodoctor / 123RF Stock Photo  @AnnaSeacat | Socially Minded Marketing

Image credit: videodoctor / 123RF Stock Photo @AnnaSeacat | Socially Minded Marketing


These memorable lyrics were written by Alan Jackson in the days following the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.  Jackson’s song about the tragic day when thousands of Americans died in a terrorist attack earned him a lot of money, recognition, and clout. According to an article in CMT News, after Jackson performed the song at the CMA “the song quickly climbed to No. 1 on the country chart and stayed there for five weeks.  The following year, he won five CMA Awards, including entertainer of the year, male vocalist and album (Drive), as well as single and song of the year honors for ‘Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).’  He also claimed his first-ever Grammy for the song” (para. 13, 2011).  Moreover, ten years after the song was released the singer/song writer said that it was still “one of my biggest songs” (para. 4).  And, if all of that was not enough, the lyrics have been entered into the U.S. Congressional record.

Unlike other musicians, who collaborated on charity albums in an effort to raise money for the United Way and the American Red Cross, according to a 2002 article in Entertainment Weekly, “Jackson’s album has no official ties to any nonprofit group and he prefers to make his donations privately” (Flynn & Young, para. 5).

It is not hard to imagine that the approach Alan Jackson took in marketing his song, with no attempt to make it about raising money or awareness for a nonprofit, would miserably fail in today’s social landscape.


Unlike Jackson, who had the luxury of hiding behind a preference for privacy, today, social media has created an environment where brands cannot hide from public scrutiny.  It is not hard to imagine that the approach Alan Jackson took in marketing his song, with no attempt to make it about raising money or awareness for a nonprofit, would miserably fail in today’s social landscape.  For example, many corporations and individuals were blasted earlier this month for “commercializing” the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy.  AT&T was shamed into deleting a tweet that its followers said wrongly employed a product placement marketing tactic.

The overwhelming negative feedback regarding the tweet caused Ad Age to pose a moral question that marketing managers are confronted with in today’s world of social media:

“Is it ever right for brands to weigh in on tragedies?” (Delo, 2013).

Image credit: kunertus / 123RF Stock Photo   @AnnaSeacat

Image credit: kunertus / 123RF Stock Photo POST NO BILLS = Don’t Advertise Here. This particular sign was posted at the WTC construction site.


Clearly, back in the first part of this century, before social media had taken a seat in the mainstream, the Alan Jackson brand not only successfully weighed in on a tragedy, but benefited financially from it.  Considering this fact, it could easily be argued that consumer engagement on social media has made the accepted norms and values, which marketers must respect, more severe.  In other words, whereas Alan Jackson and his marketing team received little to no backlash for financially benefitting from others’ tragic deaths, today marketing managers are publicly challenged by their constituents with tough ethical questions.


In “Ethical Marketing” (2005), the authors suggested that marketing managers can “better structure ethical questions” by “systematically analyzing an ethical issue and applying to it one or more ethical standards” (Bowie, Klein, Laczniak, & Murphy, p. 17).  This systematic analysis was broken down into three steps.

@Anna Seacat Ethical Marketing

@Anna Seacat Ethical Marketing

Step One.  The first step in the systematic analysis, which was outlined in “Ethical Marketing,” was to define “a marketing question as an ethical problem.”  Therefore, in the case of the 9/11 scenarios above, Ad Age appropriately framed the marketing question, “Is it ever right for brands to weigh in on tragedies?” as an ethical problem, which should be discussed by the marketing industry.

Step Two.  Next, the authors recommended that marketing managers select an ethical standard on which to evaluate the problem.  The ethical standards outlined in the text included “Comprehensive Ethical Theories” (p. 21) and “Religious Models of Marketing Ethics” (p. 35), as well as more modern models, such as the “Moral Development Model” (p. 40) and the “Hunt-Vitell” model (p. 42).  With so many established standards available, it was suggested that in different instances, marketing managers will be required to “draw from various and multiple ethical theories” (p. 45), which will require professional training and/or formal education in applied ethics.

Step Three.  The authors of “Ethical Marketing” recommended that after the guiding ethical theory is selected, the last step is to apply that standard to the specific ethical problem in question.  By following this systematic approach, marketers avoid a “clash of personal opinion or preference” (p. 18), because the ethical reasoning “is grounded in knowledge of ethical theory.”


Above it was proposed that the days of when marketers could commercialize, or otherwise take advantage of tragic events, are long gone.  Social media has connected consumers and given them a collective voice to approve or disapprove of marketing tactics as demonstrated in AT&T’s misguided product placement.  It was concluded that the marketers, which are operating under the scrutiny of social media, would benefit from defining tough marketing questions as ethical problems, understanding applicable ethical theories, and applying those specific standards to decision making.


Alan Jackson Recalls 9/11 on 10th Anniversary. (2011). CMT News. Retrieved from

Bowie, N. E., Klein, T. A., Laczniak, G. R., & Murphy, P. E.  (2005). Ethical Marketing. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Delo, C. (2013). AT&T and Others Are Browbeaten on Twitter Following 9/11-Related Posts. Ad Age. Retrieved from

Flynn, G. & Yong, J. (2002). Face the Music. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from,,220680,00.html

Jackson, A. (2001). Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning). Drive.  Nashville, TN: Arista. (2002).


  1. Jared Nesbit · · Reply


    Great post! I have often felt companies do this a lot, and a lot of the time it makes me not want to buy their products because I don’t want to increase their bottom line when such a tragedy happened. The ideas you posted reminded me of a story which just ran in a local newspaper in Utah.

    A man was out elk hunting and successfully bagged a good size elk, while he was cleaning the elk he tried to roll the animal over and ended up goring himself in the neck with the antlers of the elk. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) then turned around and used this as a marketing tool and came out with a slogan which reads “Pay Back is Hell” and shows an elk with blood on the tips of his antlers I personally think this is a creative ploy for PETA to use to spread their cause, but again as your question ask “is it ever right for brands to weigh in on tragedies?”

    1. Jared,

      Thank you for bring this instance of questionable marketing tactics to our attention. Surely there is a more respectable way to use marketing communications to retain and attract key segments of PETA’S target market.

      I appreciate the time you took to share this with us. What does everyone else think? Is it OK for some organizations to use tragedy for their own benefit? Would PETA justify this as a “necessary evil?”


  2. Chelsea Gardner · · Reply

    Hi Anna,

    Great job with your post! You expressed some great points throughout your entry and I really enjoyed the visual elements that you included. I couldn’t help but think however that perhaps one of the reasons Alan Jackson wasn’t crucified for his song besides the availability of social media aspect is because music can be considered more of an art form than an actual product or service. Of course a musician ultimately is trying to sell records and concert tickets but I’d argue that given the nature of their work there is a lot more flexibility in terms of ethics than the public might allow for a company like AT&T. I think it would have been a respectable thing had Jackson donated some if not all of the profits from the song to those affected by the tragedy but I think he had every right to express himself by way of song and I’m sure his tribute helped many people during that time period and today. That said, I’m not a big country fan and I don’t recall ever hearing the song but from what I’ve read I’d like to believe the song was written with good intentions.


    1. Chelsea,

      Thank you for both taking the time to read my post and presenting an alternative view. A different perspective definitely adds value to the discussion. Below is my response.

      Deontological Defense

      I do agree with you that the concept of good intentions can be used as a standard to analyze whether or not a marketing tactic is ethical. In fact, according to philosophers, ethical theories that are deontological in nature use “intentions or motivations” to “determine whether a marketing decision is ethical or unethical” (Bowie, Klein, Laczniak, & Murphy, 2005, p. 25). So, if one would effectively employ this theory to judge Jackson’s marketing of the song he may very well pass the moral test.

      Does a Deontological Defense Work Well Today?

      However, my point in the article was to say that even marketers with good intentions can be slammed by the online community today. For instance, it could be easily argued that the motivations of the marketer from @ATT were only to commemorate the event and doing so with a smart phone is not too out of place.

      Nevertheless, I maintain that online consumers are using the power in their connectedness to collectively judge brands with higher ethical standards. For example, if Alan Jackson released his song on the most recent anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, tried to use “artistic expression” as his defense, and refused to be transparent about how his earnings from the song were used, I am confident that consumers would go to social media to protest his behavior as unethical.

      New Technology and the Transparency Movement

      This whole discussion reminds me of the 2012 “bullying” episode of South Park. In one of the final scenes, Stan is trying to defend a big Hollywood movie about bullying by saying that the intent of the movie is to reflect a societal issue and help kids in America deal with a tough time in their lives. Stan said, “This video can change how people think about bullying! It needs to be seen by everybody, Kyle!” However, Kyle questioned Stan’s deontological defense of the movie and asked, “If it needs to be seen by everybody, then why don’t you put it out on the Internet for free?!” (Parker, Stone, 2012).

      You see, even though a marketer or artist may have good intentions when she or he reflects a tragedy or societal issue, in today’s social landscape, highly engaged, online consumers are going to use other ethical standards to analyze and publicly critique marketing decisions. While YouTube may have not been a natural go-to medium for Alan Jackson to share his “artistic expression” back in 2001, it certainly is today. Therefore, if he truly wrote the song to share with others who were feeling the same pain (his good intention), and it sincerely wasn’t about advancing his career or making a profit, then, today, he would have to release it to the public on a free medium or give away the profits. Moreover, with so many online watchdogs scrutinizing both nonprofit and for-profit brands today, trying to hide behind giving away profits in “privacy” would surely bring on an even stronger social media backlash.


      Again, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on why you think Alan Jackson got away with marketing “Where Were You?” I agree that his motivations and position as “artist” worked to defend his song in 2001. But, if one tweet from @ATT caused the corporation’s CEO to release a formal apology, it is unlikely that these two defenses would save Jackson today.



      Bowie, N. E., Klein, T. A., Laczniak, G. R., & Murphy, P. E. (2005). Ethical Marketing. Upper Saddle River,

      NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

      Parker, T., & Stone, M. (Writers). (2012). Butterballs. [Television series episode]. In Garefino, A., Parker,

      T., & Stone, M. (Producers), South Park. Culver City, CA: South Park Studios.

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Ethan McCarty

Digital strategy | Social business | People-centric biznology

Alana Harris Photography

some of my favorite photos and their stories


A Friendly Debate about Modern B2B Marketing

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