Marketing is not all about positioning product; it’s also about connecting with your consumer base.

This post contrasts two television advertising approaches to September 11th. Both ads refer to the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11th, 2001 – 15 years ago today at the time of this posting.

The first ad is from a nationally-known beer brewer, Budweiser. It shows a delivery wagon being pulled quietly through a small town street by the company’s iconic Clydesdale horses. They somberly walk up to a park overlooking Manhattan, as the camera pans to the part of the skyline where the Twin Towers stood just four months prior. The ad ends with the Clydesdale horses kneeling in respect, then a fade to black with the words, “We’ll never forget”.

The second is a recent commercial from a San Antonio-based mattress company, Miracle Mattress. In this ad, a spokeswomen explains their special promotion for 9-11, that you can get any size mattress for the size of a twin. Behind her stand two salesmen, both in front of a tower of mattresses. She throws her arms back into the two men, who stumble backwards and knock over the two towers of mattresses. She acts upset about the accident, and then ends the commercial by saying jokingly, “We’ll never forget.”

Let’s compare the two ads. The Budweiser ad only aired once in January 2002, during the Super Bowl. Many people in the country were still in shock after 9-11. This ad showed no product, and was purely a positioning ad. It communicated its message of solidarity with and mourning alongside its consumer base. It did so visually with no voice-over, only backed by a somber soundtrack. They sought and obtained the approval of members of Congress and New York City’s mayor. You can read more about the making of the commercial here. AdAge rated this ad as the “most effective of the quarter”, as reported by Business Insider.

By contrast, the mattress ad had the opposite effect. Public opinion about Miracle Mattress was so negative after the ad aired, that the company had to close their doors indefinitely, as reported by CNBC. What happened?

Although I’m no expert on the mattress business, I understand that it is a high-margin reselling business. A firm like Miracle Mattress can probably afford a deep discount on its products for a limited time. The Twin Tower Sale tied into the theme of Patriot Day, making the promotion itself sound.

The execution of the commercial was adequate. The people in the ad seemed uncomfortable in front of the camera, and the visual gag of toppling a tower of mattresses was amateurish. Overall, though, the ad was on par with other low-budget, self-produced television ads that often get aired on late-night TV.

However, few would argue against the idea that the mattress ad was in poor taste. Many people compare the 9-11 attack to Pearl Harbor, in that both provoked a declaration of war and a military response. Even though Pearl Harbor was 75 years ago, I do not recall seeing any Pearl Harbor sales or other attempts to capitalize on that tragedy. That mattress ad showed a lack of understanding of the sentiment of its target market toward 9-11, and that insensitivity proved fatal to the business.

With proper framing, the promotion might have been successful. If Miracle Mattress had targeted the demographic of military and first responders in respect for the sacrifices made on 9-11, I think many people would have seen the ad favorably. For example, they could have limited the offer to just that demographic. Another possibility would have been to offer the twin price promotion to everyone, while also providing an additional benefit to members of that group like interest-free financing or free delivery.

Targeting is only one option. Miracle Mattress could have tied the promotion to their brand by highlighting some of the miracles of circumstance that happened on 9-11, and offered to donate a portion of the sale’s proceeds to an advocacy group like The Feal Good Foundation, which was founded by John Feal, a 9-11 first responder who was denied benefits for injuries sustained during the recovery efforts. In doing so, they could have strengthened their position as a consumer-minded member of the San Antonio small business community.

Marketing is not all about positioning product; it’s also about connecting with your consumer base. It is sad that Miracle Mattress had to learn this in such a swift and damning manner.