Since Sandy hit lots of companies have been reaching out to homebound consumers: Anthropologie offered “high and dry, safe inside free shipping;” American Express sent out an email to storm stricken cardholders offering emergency financial and travel assistance. Then there was the email from American Apparel promoting a “Hurricane Sandy Sale” -- offering  20 percent off, in case, as the email says, you were bored, during the storm.

The message did not go over well with Whitney Hess.

“When I saw it in my inbox, I was completely shocked,” she said.

Hess is a user experience consultant who helps companies understand how their web presence impacts consumers. I asked her to explain her own reaction and the huge backlash to the ad that erupted on Twitter.

“They make no mention of a charity,” she said. No mention of thinking about those who are affected. And it just demonstrates such a lack of empathy. It broke my heart and it ensured that I will never shop there again."

American Apparel said it wasn’t trying to make light of the situation. The company pointed out it has stores in the affected area, up and down the East Coast, and that Halloween is normally its busiest time of the year. But by trying to mitigate its losses, American Apparel may have caused a larger problem for itself.

Sanjay Dhar teaches marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. He says American Apparel should have softened the tone of its ad by offering to help its customers.

“I think it would have made a big difference,” he said.

Dhar says the younger customers who shop at American Apparel are idealistic. They’re focused, not on money, but on changing the world. So Dhar says it’s important for brands to think about the tone of their ads and to know what their target audience wants. For its part, American Apparel told me it will be donating clothes to storm victims.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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