Saturday, July 18, 2015

Nooga Strong and Tragedy-Borne Marketing

Mere hours after chaos struck Chattanooga last week, the hashtag #NoogaStrong was born and spreading across the Twitterverse.

But first, a side note.

Country music artist Ronnie McDowell rocketed to fame on the back of Elvis Presley's corpse.

McDowell's song, "The King is Gone," was written mere hours after he learned of Presley's death on the radio while driving down the Interstate in 1977. The song became a launchpad for a more prolific and interesting career that included more than 30 songs in the Top 40, almost all of them from 1978-1986.

McDowell was the final act for the radio show "Music City Roots" (link to livestream of the show) recently, and he told the story of his rise. His song remembering The King has sold 5 million copies. He said six. Maybe he's right. Maybe he's rounding up.

What struck my friends and I in the audience was how casually he spoke of Elvis' demise. Elvis died. I wrote this song. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me. My life was never the same.

To be fair, McDowell has probably told this story a few hundred thousand times in the last 35 years. How can he possibly be expected to bring sincere emotion to The King's death every single time? Still, the way he spoke of it seemed just a bit too cavalier.

In interviews during his rise, Ronnie McDowell began to express how frustrating it could be that he was so singularly identified by that song, by his tendency to sound like (and gyrate like) Elvis, and that he wanted to be respected in his own right, as his own man. The rocket fuel to stardom had proven to be something of a restraint as well.

Back to Chattanooga, where a nutjob shut down a town for the better part of a day. His insanity was tainted in some part by his own screwed-up brand of Islam, and it led him to murder five men.

And then, there it is. #NoogaStrong.

A downtown Chattanooga restaurant put out four plates and four shots of whiskey for four reserved seats at the bar in memory of the fallen soldiers. At least one other restaurant in the suburbs made a similar effort.

In the hours and days following, on Facebook and Twitter, pictures of T-shirts for sale. Pictures of decals and stickers. Proceeds going to the families.

As someone whose career involves marketing, I am constantly taken aback by how quickly and casually we seem to commodify and brand our tragic experiences. If we can't give it hashtag and a somber picture, we can't feel it. If we can't share it out with some memorable name, then it doesn't feel like a big enough deal. If our story isn't trending nationally, people don't care as much as they should.

If it seems like I'm judging, like I'm insulting people who have used this hashtag or have eaten at one of these restaurants to honor their efforts, please understand that I am the dinosaur in this scenario. I'm the one struggling to keep up with the times.

Contemporary culture has decided that tragedy-based marketing is fair game, so long as its done with some modicum of taste and reservation. And if it is, we'll take pictures, share and retweet it as a show of branding solidarity. We'll buy those decals, and we'll wear those shirts.

When I was in Boston last winter, every tourist store had Boston Strong shirts. Those things were as ubiquitous as Red Sawx and Patriots wear.

We have long moved past whether it's weird to wear cool-looking shirts that memorialize the Boston Marathon bombings. That I find it awkward and uncomfortable is very much my problem.

Ronnie McDowell made a career because he was the fastest on the draw to a song about Elvis' death. Social media has only made the race faster and more intense.

Mostly, I think I'm just grateful Twitter didn't exist on September 11, 2001. I don't want my memory of that dreadful and horrifying day reduced to some catchy hashtags and window stickers. Tragedy and mourning takes time, and it needs to marinate, and that while a community must find ways of uniting in a time of loss, doing so with jingos might not be the healthiest or best way to go about it.


goofytakemyhand said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you and am glad to learn I am not the only one with this perspective. Thank you for posting this.

Bob said...

I'm not sure I see the problem here, or, if there is one, social media's culpability in it. Neil Young's "Ohio" predates even Ronnie McDowell and accomplishes the same tragedy-based marketing with little more than thousands of radios and some 45s (records, not guns). And we tend to forget that Young and CSNY made money off that record, too.

While the tragedy-based jingoism of "Remember The Maine" was fueled nationwide only by newspapers 117 years ago, I don't think that civic pride expressions on t-shirts equate with jingoism. Isn't it human nature to want to show communal support in the face of tragedy? As such, I see no difference between a t-shirt, a hashtag, and a that-night or that-Sunday church service.

Billy said...

@Bob - As I begrudgingly acknowledge, you might well be right. My issues might just be my issues. I can think of numerous examples that didn't bother me... but then I think of reasons the examples were a little different: (1) "The Day the Music Died" or "The Rising" both had decent-sized gaps between their release and the tragedy about which they sang. (2) The Brainerd Road Starbucks honored Sgt. Tim Chapin when he was shot, but he went to that Starbucks every day and had a real connection with the ex-military manager and staff. (3) Students from a local private school stood out in the rain as the funeral procession for another slain officer went by many years back, but that wasn't orchestrated by the school administrators, nor did it become fodder for photographs with hashtags (although it might have today, and that would probably have left me uncomfortable about the motives/intent).

Still, it can be a dangerous game trying to derive the motives of others in moments of tragedy. Is the Mellow Mushroom effort a touching excuse to get plastered all over Facebook or a genuine attempt to try and work through grief/shock with something like art/community expression? I don't know, and people deserve more of a benefit of the doubt than I'm probably offering.

There's plenty of reasons that anyone should be just a tiny bit skeptical, but my first instincts to question these efforts might be as unhealthy or counterproductive as any reaction.