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Brands face risk of backlash by tweeting about Gord Downie

Last Updated Oct 20, 2017 at 8:00 am PST

Gord Downie blows a kiss to the audience during a ceremony honouring the Canadian singer at the AFN Special Chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que., Tuesday, December 6, 2016. Among the tweets of tributes from fans of Downie were some that appeared less than heartfelt - messages from corporate brands including Hudson's Bay and Chevrolet Canada. Downie died Tuesday night after a public battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

TORONTO – Fans of rock star, poet and Canadian troubadour Gord Downie began flooding social media with heartfelt tributes as soon as word emerged that the singer had died.

And among their tweets were some that appeared less than heartfelt — messages from corporate brands including Hudson’s Bay and Chevrolet Canada.

One tweet from @hudsonsbay spurred debate for its seeming lack of tact, and was reportedly removed within 30 minutes.

But that was long enough to be captured by the Toronto-based lunchtime tabloid Twelve Thirty Six, which reposted the image that seemed to some like a thinly veiled attempt to hawk denim jackets.

“Here’s to the King of the Canadian Tuxedo. #RIPGordDownie,” the department store tweeted, along with an image of three denim jackets with brand labels prominently displayed, including one with a lining that featured HBC’s distinctive multi-coloured stripes.

Marketing professor Ela Veresiu found it in “poor taste.”

“It was well-meaning but from my own research (when) it’s from an industry that’s far removed from the particular sad story or social situation, then it’s never a good time or a good idea to comment,” said Veresiu, from York University’s Schulich School of Business.

A spokesman for HBC did not immediately return a request for comment.

Chevrolet Canada also waded into the conversation on Twitter with a black-and-white image of what appeared to be a highway lined with majestic pines and the words: “Over 53 years, a kid from Kingston spent his life on the road, inspiring Canadians with his music from coast to coast. Today we say goodbye to an icon. R.I.P.”

Chevy Canada spokesman Mathew Palmer said the tweet was a genuine expression of shared grief.

The tweet did not mention Downie by name or show a car, and Palmer said that was intentional.

“We’re an iconic company of fans ourselves and this was something that was important to us and we felt like we should say something to acknowledge it,” said Palmer, director of communications for parent company General Motors Canada.

“Legitimately, ours was a true sense of mourning and the loss of an icon.”

Downie, who was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer, died Tuesday at 53.

Veresiu said such comments are risky when potential customers might be feeling especially vulnerable emotionally. But some companies might believe it helps humanize their brand.

Several have pulled similar stunts in the wake of other high-profile deaths.

When pop icon Prince died in April 2016, that too drew a few off-note comments. A quickly deleted tweet from General Mills-owned Cheerios included the words “Rest in peace” on a purple background, with a Cheerio dotting the letter “i”.

Then there was the computer company Lenovo, which tried to link its corporate values to those of Prince with the tweet: “He embodied so much of what we prize most: fearlessness, love and a refusal to stand still. RIP, @Prince.”

Similar social media gimmicks emerged in the wake of David Bowie’s death last year.

London shoe retailer Office Shoes tweeted “RIP David Bowie – farewell to a legend” and quoted lyrics from his hit “Let’s Dance” — “put on your red shoes and dance the blues.”

Meanwhile, the Bordeaux vineyard Valade & Transandine tried to lure Bowie fans with this tweet: “Celebrate the life and times of David Bowie with one of our lovely wines. May he rest in peace.”

Veresiu said companies tend to be myopic when it comes to social media, believing that only a specific demographic will view it and that if a message fails, it can easily be deleted.

“More often than not these companies don’t test, don’t do the proper market research for their social media campaigns prior to launch, and so they just release statements and tweets and photos on various social media platforms and hope for the best.”

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Chevy Canada spokesman Mathew Palmer’s name.