Jan 19, 2015 · 3 minutes

Pity the brand social media manager.

In the new content economy, the pressure is on for Twitter and Facebook jockeys to insert their company's brand into the narrative of every trending topic, good taste be damned. This is done in the hopes of accumulating retweets and likes, which in turn are supposed to lead to vague outcomes like Increased Brand Awareness and More Engaged Consumers.

It's a nice idea in theory: Tweet out enough polar bears enjoying Coca-Cola around the holidays, and people might just drink your brand of brown bubble syrup at Christmas over your competitor's.

But Christmas is already deeply associated with the comforts of commercialism. Martin Luther King Day? Not so much. And yet historically that hasn't stopped brands from treating this holiday, which celebrates a man who died fighting the most noble of battles, like any other. When a brand fuses their corporate identity to a day designed for solemn remembrance, the result is at best a cheap and empty tribute, and at worst a monumentally insensitive message that runs counter to everything King stood for.

As the years passed, and brands refused to wise up to this reality, it seemed as though the "inappropriate corporate tweet" would become a new normal, and the public would recalibrate its standards of decency accordingly as it's done so many times in these shameless Internet days. But thankfully, the corporate content machine noticeably slowed its gears on this year's Martin Luther King Day, going largely silent or at least treating the holiday with as much dignity as a brand could be expected to muster (for the most part).

From McDonald's to Malt-O-Meal, many brands that last year attracted Internet ire for cheaply capitalizing on the holiday made no reference to King today. Pornhub, the adult site that won near-unanimous scorn in 2014 for a ill-advised tweet about its "Ebony" porn category, kept things simple, tweeting, "Happy MLK Day!" before moving on to its regularly-scheduled programming. (Its most recent tweet asks, "Who has a boner right now?") Oreo, the closest thing to a gold standard when it comes to brand tweets, kept things light and cookie-related as it did last year.

Of course not everybody got the memo. BMW -- a company that doesn't exactly have a pristine legacy of promoting equal rights -- tweeted, "Today we reflect on the innovation & drive of a man who inspired us all. honors Martin Luther King, Jr. ." The car company gets double-demerits for both likening its brand's mission to that of King's and for using a cheap pun. The day's worst tweet came courtesy of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, which suffered widespread condemnation for tweeting -- then deleting -- a photo of its quarterback in tears with the caption "We Shall Overcome #MLKDay," as if the struggles of a football game possess the same gravity as African Americans' struggles for equal rights.

There are a few possible explanations for the relative quiet from brands. Maybe corporations have finally put a correct read on popular opinion when it comes to co-opting sacred events and historical figures, resulting in a more sensitive approach. Or maybe they've calculated that any potential controversy isn't worth the risk. A recent study found that only 5 percent of US adults say social media has a "great influence" on their purchasing decisions. It's also possible that, due to increased visibility in the media of racial tensions surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, that the topic of race is far too sensitive an issue to align one's brand with, even if it's to honor a largely uncontroversial figure in the Civil Rights Movement.

A social media manager for a major restaurant chain once told me the most important part of her job was telling her bosses, "No." Let's hope that the top brass at major chains continue to heed that advice on holidays like Martin Luther King Day so corporations can concentrate on what they're good at -- selling products that distract us from the knowledge that we're all going to die.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]