If you run your own business, hiring an SEO company or online marketing firm to help direct your internet advertising campaigns likely seems like an obvious choice. These agencies are experts in search engine optimization, enabling them to help companies like yours improve their Google rankings and attract new customers with compelling content. But how would you feel about this choice if you knew that your SEO company was using a country’s tragic event to help brand your business? In the past, this controversial strategy has used events like the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013 or the Ebola epidemic to sell products and draw attention. Now, a number of businesses have reportedly begun using the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks in France for commercial gain. But does the Charlie Hebdo movement’s message of free speech mesh with branding efforts and sales?
On January 7, the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo drew international support and sympathy when two masked gunmen stormed its Parisian headquarters, killing 12 people and injuring 11 more. In the wake of the attack, the shooters were revealed to be members of a Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda, which has long targeted the newspaper over their decision to publish cartoons that depict the prophet Muhammad. Pictures of the prophet are forbidden in some Islamic disciplines, but the attack quickly drew condemnation from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Almost immediately, the phrase “Je suis Charlie,” French for “I am Charlie,” was shared across social media and shouted at protests, becoming a slogan for many proponents of free speech.
Unfortunately, it appears that many businesses were as eager to use the event for commercial gain as others were to start a conversation about expression and religion. Less than 24 hours after the attack, a copyright application was submitted at the Benelux Office for Intellectual Property (BOIP) for “Je Suis Charlie.” The trademark was reportedly filed by Yanick Uytterhaegen, a Belgian businessman whose application would cover clothing, stationary and cleaning products. Uytterhaegen has defended this action, stating that he intends to use the products to raise money for Charlie Hebdo and the families of the artists lost in the attack, and would not prevent people from using it as a slogan. However, he has yet to contact the newspaper, and the artistic director behind the phrase’s famous black and white logo has said that he is “horrified” by the potential copyright.
But while Uytterhaegen sought legal ownership of the phrase, he was far from the only merchandiser who used the slogan: a quick eBay search will reveal a wide variety of T-shirts, key rings, stickers, pens, stuffed animals and more, all bearing the “Je Suis Charlie” logo. Upon being interviewed by the International Business Times and other media organizations, some of these merchants claimed to be raising awareness and supporting the French people, rather than seeking profit. However, they provided no evidence to support these assertions.
On January 14, other eBay users began offering copies of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo. Some of these sales drew bids of more than £5,000, drawing a sharp contrast to similar philanthropic efforts: currently, a number of volunteers around the world are working to get copies to readers who have been unable to buy the newspaper. Unfortunately, eBay has yet to discipline any merchants selling products related to the attack, in spite of the website’s history of taking action on insensitive sales. For example, following the Boston Marathon bombing, eBay removed a number of listings for official jackets, medals and personal items of participants.
But the worst misuse of the tragedy can likely be seen in one website’s branding attempt: after the online activist group Anonymous created a campaign under the title “Op Charlie Hebdo,” a number of journalists reportedly received an email from a sender who claimed to be affiliated with the hackers. The message directed the recipients to a new website, called opcharliehebdo.com, but Anonymous quickly denied they were affiliated with the site and advised users to avoid it.
As a secretive and somewhat unorganized group, some speculated that one faction of Anonymous had set up the site without informing the rest of the collective. However, after a few days, the website began directing visitors to Rantic. com, a marketing company that often hijacks campaigns. Last year, the company created a website that promised to release naked pictures of actress Emma Watson at the end of a countdown. In each stunt, the company tries to promote their services, which typically center around fake social media followers and disreputable SEO services.
When questioned about the campaign, a spokesperson from Rantic claimed that the company was helping to boost the sales of Charlie Hebdo’s subscriptions. Unsurprisingly, this statement drew criticism from a number of media organizations and individuals. However, other marketing companies often issued the strongest denunciations.
“In marketing, taking advantage of a current trend is usually a good idea, but you have to consider the emotional implications of what you’re doing. Trying to promote your business by using a tragedy is not only insensitive, it’s shortsighted, as your brand will suffer far more damage to its reputation than it will gain in visibility,” says Derek Bryan, Content Marketing Manager at Quez Media Marketing.
Today, over two weeks after the attack, the “Je Suis Charlie” movement is still drawing international attention. Because of this, the commercialization of the message continues as well. With this discussion of free speech at the forefront of social consciousness, simultaneously blending and confronting corporate branding attempts, it is unclear how the Charlie Hebdo shooting will be remembered in the future: as a triumph for art and expression, or an event marked by vintage t-shirts?