As humans, we are drawn to stark images, what people refer to as “unexpected juxtaposition.” Quite often, tragedy contains this unexpected juxtaposition: the Costa Concordia, an Italian cruise ship half-submerged on its side after striking underwater rocks, the rubble of an elementary school after a tornado has roared through, a totaled car resting on its roof instead of its wheels after a bad accident. These types of images are vivid and catch our attention as human beings, because it’s something we (hopefully) don’t see every day and it’s startling.

In the tragedy storytelling archetype, turning those images into a marketing campaign is a tricky proposition, but it can be an effective one. The narrative of a tragedy contains a character with a great flaw who makes a grave mistake that ultimately proves to be their undoing. From a marketing perspective, this archetype is not a great fit for most businesses, but there are some industries that do well with the tragedy narrative:

  • Alarm and security system sales
  • Insurance sales
  • Funeral and internment services
  • Safety equipment sales
  • Self-defense (such as martial arts training or weaponry)
  • Prevention products and services (medicine, home improvement, or structural damage prevention)
  • Charities

Balancing prevention and preparedness

The delicate nature of utilizing tragic narratives in your marketing campaign must be seriously considered, and there are multiple pitfalls to avoid. Because you’re pointing out hardships and grief people have suffered, the last thing you want is to come off as exploitative of someone’s tragedy to boost your profit margin.

Pepsi stepped in it with this Kendall Jenner commercial depicting a peaceful demonstration with a line of police officers standing by to keep order, and when Jenner hands one of the officers a can of Pepsi and he drinks it, the demonstrators break into cheers. The image of Jenner standing before a line of armed police was compared to the photo of Iesha Evans taken at a Black Lives Matter protest following the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Louisiana in July 2016. Pepsi was accused of being tone deaf to the tragedies of black people who’ve been protesting against police brutality, with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining steam in recent years. The Pepsi ad was released in April 2017, when the US was in the thick of multiple protest marches across the country.

Many on social media blamed the company for exploiting these demonstrations for profit and patronizing those involved in the demonstrations with the idea a beverage could solve the problems that had driven people to the streets in protest to begin with. Given their product isn’t an item that can alleviate suffering or prevent danger, tragedy narratives or any play on them isn’t in Pepsi’s best interest to include in their marketing. Now some of their competition have made it known that they annually suspend regular production in order to can drinking water for donation to areas suffering earthquake and hurricane aftermath. That is more in line with a tragic narrative and what they’re doing to resolve a problem for those in need, and quite frankly, the only reason a beverage company should consider a tragic marketing narrative at all.

In contrast, a company responsible for an emergency notification system, in the immediate wake of the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, pointed out that their product, had it been in place when the shooting occurred, might have notified people on campus sooner to the danger and helped prevent some of the loss of life. While some called the timing and utilization of the tragedy in their campaign crass, the company, MIR3, tailored their message as a chance for people to minimize future tragedies like the VTech shooting in the hopes of saving lives, their ultimate goal.

Insurance companies offer similar messages, most recently with State Farm showing devastation in the wake of previous hurricanes as a reason to trust their company with your insurance needs because past devastation doesn’t have to be future turmoil with their people to help. In this ad, State Farm did depict only property destruction coupled with impressive images of severe weather, not moments of actual loss of life. It’s implied that their service is designed to help as much as possible, including with life insurance.

How to make it about the consumer of your goods and services

The common thread in the emergency notification system and insurance examples is the promise of empowerment for their customers.

We can’t prevent weather from roaring at us, and we never know when another type of emergency will happen in our lives, but with these products and services, we can be prepared for almost any eventuality. Alarm and security companies take this a step further, giving their consumers the tools not just to prepare for, but to prevent such things as burglaries and home invasions.

Medical research and charities like the American Red Cross take a different tack, usually describing the tragedies they help people overcome, either by research to prevent maladies or offering support and counseling to those who need it. They pull on our heartstrings with narratives of patients who’ve faced terrible diseases or people who have been the victims of devastation such as earthquakes and floods. These strategies are designed to appeal to the part of human nature that wants to help our fellow man. Most of the help these foundations provide cost the recipient little to nothing, but they’re very expensive to the organizations themselves, and in the case of the American Red Cross, the value of a blood donation is beyond monetary measure in a time of need. So they serve to bridge a gap between people who see an upsetting event unfold and want to help but have no way to do so.

These organizations give us a way to contribute by donating money for their emergency operations, donating time at one of their local branches, or donating goods such as canned food or diapers when they need them.

Keeping tragedy in perspective is the key to making a narrative with this archetype work for your marketing strategy.

We live in a time where the more ubiquitous video becomes the more society is witness to tragic things. Maintaining our sensitivity is crucial to avoiding becoming inured to human suffering. Marketing campaigns can actually help us maintain that sensitivity by telling us the stories of the humans in the midst of suffering. Marketing this way can also help us not only prevent the same from happening to us with preparedness and foresight, but we can lessen the pain for those suffering now. We just need the product or service at our fingertips to do so, and if you can bridge that gap, then your company is the best place to start.