This blog post by John Kelly of The Washington Post describes his receipt of a postcard with an offer from the the Costa Concordia -- the ship that sank off the coast of Italy. It includes the now morbidly humorous message, "Immerse Yourself."
If the postcard was mailed prior to January 13, then I suppose the people at American Express started to freak out. If the postcard mailed after ship and shore met, then this is a Fail for Timing. Just as airlines typically pull their ads after a plane crash, a cruise ship marketer should pull its marketing communications immediately after a ship sinks. There is no benefit to reminding prospective customers of a tragedy that is being covered on the evening news.
According to Mr. Kelly, a representative explained that it takes between six and eight weeks from when a brochure is put into creative to when it reaches mailboxes, making it too late to pull the mailing. It indeed does take 6-8 weeks to prepare mail, but it takes only one day to conduct a final review and release the mail into the mailstream.
I was a marketing manager at a company that spent tens of thousands of dollars preparing a national direct mail campaign only to cancel it at the lettershop because of a tragic travel incident. It was worth the sunk cost (no pun intended) to cancel the campaign and not send mail that could damage the company's brand reputation.
Lesson: Don't force your direct mail out the door or put campaigns on auto-pilot. Do a final check before every mailing to ensure that your product and offer is appropriate. Don't mail an offer for a product that recently killed people.