TV & Showbiz

Was the AT&T 9/11 Ad Really That Offensive?


The AT&T 9/11 ad featured a hand holding a cell phone over the Manhattan skyline with an image of the lights representing the missing twin towers of the World Trade Center on the phone’s screen. The company apologized for the ad and pulled it after angry complaints.

Every September 11th, people and businesses alike express memories and display images to commemorate the anniversary of that dark day. Once in a while, a company goes entirely too far. A former colleague of mine posted a photo on Facebook of a golf course that run a 9/11 coupon allowing golfers to pay $9.11 for nine holes or $19.11 for 18.

Yeah, that’s pretty tacky: they’re selling a specific service without any reverence about the day itself. If I were a golfer — and I have no intentions of ever being one — I’d never set foot on that golf course.

AT&T, a company for which I certainly have few nice things to say from past experiences, posted a tweet that immediately became controversial. It read, “Never forget” and contained a photo. Check out this post at Huffington for a shot of the tweet, which was only up for about an hour on AT&T’s Twitter account before it was pulled.

The photo is a nighttime image of the New York City skyline. Where the twin towers of the World Trade Center should be, a hand holds a smartphone. On the screen of the smart phone is the same image of the skyline (as if the phone’s screen was merely a hole you could see through to the background) with two bright searchlights pointing upward.

Unlike the golf coupon, this advertises no specific product, lists no price, and touts no promotion.

AT&T, like them or not, is a wireless company. Cell phones are one of their primary businesses. They used a smartphone — a product for which they are known — to display a tribute to 9/11. Honestly, the photo didn’t offend me at all.

If I worked for AT&T and wanted to post something 9/11-related, I may well have posted something similar to what I posted on my work’s Facebook page: an image of the American flag with the words, “Never forget” across it. It was simple. Clear.

But while I probably wouldn’t have used a cell phone, I just don’t see anything so outrageously inappropriate in AT&T’s ad.

Consider, for example, one of the best-received 9/11 advertisements ever: the Budweiser spot featuring the famous Budweiser Clydesdales:

Budweiser sells beer. The Clydesdales that pull the company’s symbolic beer wagon is one of the best-known ad icons around. This spot captures all of the emotion and poignancy of 9/11. Everyone knows, as soon as they see those horses, what company the spot comes from. There’s no announcer. There’s no text, other than (GASP!) a Budweiser logo at the end. Unlike the golf coupon, there’s certainly no suggestion that we should “Have a bud” to remember. It promotes the company by quietly, somberly pausing to salute the Statue of Liberty with the company’s biggest symbol of its own product.

We love that spot. (I’ll confess: it still chokes me up every time I see it.) But that brings us to a very important question: why do so many people seem to hate AT&T’s image, which essentially does the same thing in a single image as Budweiser’s spot does in a one-minute commercial?

I have to wonder if the complaints over AT&T’s tweet might have been more about people’s attitude towards AT&T than any real “offense” taken because of the image itself.

Your Turn:

Did the AT&T 9/11 ad offend you? Was an apology necessary in your opinion?


  1. I don’t see the big deal. The image didn’t bug me in the slightest. And trust me, I’m one to complain if something isn’t sitting well.

  2. VanayeHamilton I guess some people were just looking for something to be offended by yesterday? 🙂

  3. People seem happier when they have something to complain about. It helps them work through their frustrations. Do they get equally upset with themselves when they manage to do something that offends other people? No, of course not.
    It did not offend me, but I have learned over time that I am not as easily offended as the man next door. I think sometimes people confuse being offended and not liking something. Perhaps it’s because if there is something we find objectionable within our field of vision, we cannot simply turn away – it has to be destroyed.
    On the other hand, anything 9/11-related is simply a third rail for most large corporations. You touch it, you die. The only thing you can do is post something completely generic and unoriginal, and the best outcome is none at all.

  4. patricksplace I didn’t think so either. It was tastefully simple. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m not sure why there we such a reproof.

  5. Something I have learned is that no mater what you do now a days on social media you will get negative comments. If you are for something you will get complaints from those who are against it. If you are against it, you will get complaints from those who are for it. You will even get complaints from people when you don’t take a stand asking you why are you silent on it.
    Social media and “Anonymous” have embolden many a voice who should have remained silent.

  6. I’m a bit mystified about the outrage this time. I didn’t feel it was offensive at all. 
    The company provides cell phone service and used a cell phone in the ad.  Big deal.  They didn’t mention the name of the phone nor is the AT&T logo on the phone or anywhere on the picture.  They didn’t mention a price or any features of the phone.  This is obviously NOT an advertisement for the phone or their service. (If it is, they did a piss poor job of advertising!)
    I think people really overreacted this time!

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.