Upgrade to Apple Watch Series 8? National Coffee Day Fitbit Sense 2 'Hocus Pocus 2' Review Kindle Scribe Amazon Halo Rise Tesla AI Day Best Vitamins for Flu Season
Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?
No, thank you

Prince's death highlights fine line between sympathy and advertising

Commentary: After brands honor Prince on social media via their products, CNET's Bonnie Burton suggests a more tactful way of paying tribute to the deceased.

Maker's Mark replaced its signature red wax with purple in honor of Prince, but considering the singer never drank, was this insulting to his memory?
Maker's Mark

When news spread Thursday that Prince had died, everyone from Oprah to the president of the United States posted their love for the legendary pop music icon on social media.

Then something weird started to happen. Cereal, liquor and office-supply companies took to social media to say how sad they were about Prince's passing -- by using their products as the means of communicating sorrow.

When Cheerios posted a purple graphic with the text "rest in peace" (with a single Cheerio dotting the "i"), Prince fans were outraged the company would inject its brand into its condolences. Cheerios later deleted the tweet.

"As a Minnesota brand, Cheerios wanted to acknowledge the loss of a musical legend in our hometown," General Mills said in a statement. "But we quickly decided that we didn't want the tweet to be misinterpreted, and removed it out of respect for Prince and those mourning."

Cheerios wasn't the only Minnesota-based company that used its brand to say farewell to the rock star. Office-supply company 3M (famous for Post-It notes and tape) tweeted a tribute -- its logo in purple with a white teardrop in the middle.

Companies outside of Minnesota got in on the product placement too. Maker's Mark posted an image of its signature red bottle tops as purple in Prince's honor. Ironically, Prince never drank liquor, and a fan quickly alerted the company to that fact with the response, "You know Prince was strongly against consuming alcohol, right?" Another irked fan added, "Prince didn't drink. Plus, you're trying to profit from his death. Epic fail." As of publication time, the tweet remains in the Maker's Mark Twitter feed.


3M's tribute to Prince feels more like an advertisement than an homage.


This isn't, of course, the first time companies have used a celebrity death as a high-profile advertising opportunity. When rock icon David Bowie died in January, for example, Crocs shoes used the death as a way to show off its footwear, and ended up deleting a tweet after an onslaught of criticism. But companies like Fender guitars and Bose speakers -- just to name a couple -- quoted Bowie's most heartfelt lyrics instead of shilling out images of their products to cash in on the singer's hashtag traffic on Twitter.

If there's anything to be learned from this, it's that companies can express their sadness for the passing of an icon without using their products to do it. Capitalizing on tragedy on social media should never be a company's end game. You wouldn't hand out flyers for your company at a funeral, so why do the equivalent on social media?

Businesses earn customer loyalty when we think they're being genuine with their actions. Classy tweets go a long way when honoring the life of someone like Prince or David Bowie. Respect the person, and fans will respect your company.