Wildfires have sowed death and destruction in California throughout the second half of 2018, charring massive swaths of land and destroying thousands of homes, lives, and livelihoods. The first fires began around mid-July. By August, Northern California had been declared a national disaster area. By November, more than 7,500 fires had burned 1.6 million acres, killed at least 85 people with hundreds more missing, and wrought nearly $3 billion in property damage.
The destruction culminated in mid-November with the Camp Fire. Sparked in Northern California’s Butte County, it would become the single deadliest and most destructive fire in the history of the state. Several hundred miles to the south, Los Angeles and Ventura County were threatened by the Woolsey Fire, which began in the Santa Susana Mountains, which separate the San Fernando Valley from Simi Valley, which is both a geographical area and a proud city boasting a population of about 127,000.
Simi Valley is also home to Simi Valley Ford, a dealership that became the object of national and international scorn on Saturday, Nov. 10, shortly following the release of an email promotion that included this text: “Well, we didn’t catch fire. But these deals are smoking hot. Take a look!”
The condemnation was swift. Social media lit up with commenters who called the ad “disgusting,” “distasteful,” and “breathtakingly dumb.”
“People are burning to death in their vehicles, and this is what Simi Valley Ford thinks is good marketing,” wrote one Twitter user. “Shame on you!” said more than one Facebook commenter.
The dealership responded quickly. “Hello, friends,” said a follow-up post. “Our advertising team picked a heading for this week’s campaign that appears to be insensitive to some.”
“Learn how to apologize, Simi Valley Ford,” a Twitter poster replied. “This ain’t it.”
Sharing in that opinion was Ford Motor Co., which quickly established a $100,000 fund to benefit the victims of the wildfires and released the following statement:
“Our dealers work hard to communicate openly in their communities, but from time to time bad decisions happen. We’ll continue to work with our dealers to make sure they are all representing the Blue Oval in the best possible way. We were deeply disappointed in the lapse of judgment. The dealership owners are very sorry.”
Indeed they were. “Recently, we expressed ourselves in a way that does not reflect our values. We are sorry,” owners stated in a Nov. 12 Facebook post. “Simi Valley is our home and, like all of us who live here, we will continue to assist during these difficult times.”
The dozen or so comments that followed the dealership’s second apology were a mixed bag. Anger was still evident, but so was forgiveness, and there were even a couple helpful suggestions, led by “You need to fire your ad agency! NOW!”
I suppose so, assuming (a) Simi Valley Ford employs a third-party marketer, (b) agency personnel sent that email without dealer approval, and (c) no resident of the affected areas would ever consider writing about “smoking hot deals” in the middle of a wildfire.
But we don’t know that. In fact, we don’t know anything about the person or entity that composed the message, because the dealership’s owners took responsibility. They acknowledged the mistake, owned it, and apologized for it.
So let’s imagine a person of some responsibility at the store, presumably an area resident, wrote the email. And let’s reexamine the copy in that light: “We didn’t catch fire.” We, who have spent the past several days living in fear of an evacuation order. We, who know people who lost their homes, their businesses, maybe their lives, just miles from here. We, who are in this thing together, are still standing.
Is that a stretch? Take another look at that initial, failed apology: “Our advertising team picked a heading for this week’s campaign that appears to be insensitive to some.” The “some” in this case are the outraged and offended posters and commenters who piled onto the dealership.
Well, if you live in the affected areas, you have every right to be angry at whoever let an offensive email slip past the morality filters. You may also feel free to interpret Simi Valley Ford’s message as one of resilience and solidarity in a time of crisis. You probably have more pressing concerns. Either way, you get a vote.
As for the rest of us, there are more productive ways to respond to tragedies. We can make donations, raise funds, and volunteer for the relief efforts.
You can’t get mad at a fire. But as those who attacked Simi Valley Ford proved, you can tell a business owner exactly how you feel, and they might see it, and they might even respond. There is some satisfaction in that. But it won’t change a thing, and you might be wrong.
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