Advertising in the Era of COVID-19: Opportunism or Survival?

By But Wait, That's Not All... Archives
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COVID-19 is forcing us, once again, to ask the question: In times of crisis, where is that line between doing what you have to do to keep your business going, social responsibility, and opportunism? As happened with 9/11, the advertising industry is going through a process not dissimilar to the grieving process. When we first heard about COVID-19, the conversations I had in the industry ranged from outright dismissal to feigned interest to serious concern. There was also skepticism: “Of course, they’ll never cancel the Olympics” and “There will be Upfronts, but just virtual...but they’ll still happen in April/May.” Clearly, this is not the case. For our generation, not having gone through an event of this global scope, it’s quite understandable that denial was the first response we had. No one in our generation is likely to make that mistake again.

In the initial days of COVID-19 shelter in place and self-quarantine in the U.S., many marketers donated their ad time to PSAs urging self-quarantine, social distancing, and improved handwashing. This was both correct and noble. As time has continued, we continue to see Ad Council, not-for-profit healthcare, and State Health Advisory messages, and we are beginning to see some marketers return, albeit with significantly different messages. Are these ads appropriate? How do brands show leadership, compassion, and presence of mind without bleeding into cliché and sameness? Here are a few brands that are advertising. I've seen a few good examples and some head-scratchers.

Jersey Mike’s

Jersey Mike’s is a national, franchised sub sandwich shop that has had incredible growth over the past five years. Founded by 17-year-old Peter Cancro in Point Pleasant Beach, NJ, in 1975 when he purchased a neighborhood sub shop, Cancro has grown the company to more than 1,000 stores. Its culture has been focused on community and charity, with franchisees annually celebrating a “Day of Giving” where all proceeds go to charity. So, it isn’t surprising that Jersey Mike’s was one of, if not the first QSR to address the message featuring not sandwiches, but a call to action to support the community. Cancro comes off as sincere and his wishes for safety set the right tone.

State Farm:

At a time like this, right after health concerns, financial concerns are at the top of the list and State Farm has kicked into gear. Many marketers typically tend to shy away from the news category and frightening stories, which COVID-19 personifies. The IAB has launched a major push to get its members to rethink that strategy for now. It’s especially important for professional, quality news organizations that maintain the highest level of integrity and accuracy remain solvent. Kudos to State Farm for being quick to sponsor a section of Time.com. State Farm also teamed with The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, which has adapted to the “new normal,” to match donations up to $200,000 to the American Red Cross. State Farm has embraced the concept of making the new normal “more normal” in their video spot. What I liked most about the spot is that it reflects what’s going on in neighborhoods across America. Under pre-COVID conditions, you probably would have teams spending months trying to figure out the right activities to highlight and another on what music to play in the background. State Farm and their agency turned this around quickly and kept its brand as a good neighbor by showing the messages that kids have been putting up in windows and drawing on driveways, all to the inspirational Andra Day song, “Rise Up.”

Honda:

Many auto manufacturers are rightfully highlighting the financial support they’re promising to those unable to make car payments. Honda is offering that, but the company doesn’t talk about that in its spot. Instead, Honda is using its “Power of Dreams” platform to segue into the “Power of Something Greater,” highlighting food pantry volunteers and healthcare workers — reminding all of us who are healthy to do our part. There is no hard sell on auto, just a core recognition that right now, we are humans helping humans.

McDonald's:

To be honest, I’m not lovin’ it. Simple white and red ad copy set against a yellow background (by-the-book McDonald’s colors) with a repetitive piano piece. No spoken word. The core message is that McDonald’s remains open and ready to serve and can be delivered to the home via UberEats and DoorDash. This is the least “human” of what I’ve seen. No people, no empathy. The tone is meant to be cute and reassuring. It doesn’t really work. The spot also unnecessarily brings up menu items, which felt out of place.

Bounty:

Kudos to P&G for continuing to advertise a product that, at the moment, clearly sells out the second it hits store shelves.

However, the ad it is running, which was clearly created pre-COVID, trashes other “inferior'' brands of paper towels. Although supplies of Bounty seem to be picking up, for weeks it was unavailable and consumers purchased whatever they could get. Now is not the time to be bashing the competition.

Amazon:

Collectively, I think we are all incredibly grateful for the Amazon workers and delivery-persons that are taking tremendous risk to deliver essential goods to our doorstep. I know many of you will disagree with what I am about to say, but if a company really, genuinely appreciates its workers, then it should tell them in a company-wide email or video, not a TV ad. All the data points are correct. Their work has never been more important. Just give them a raise, an Amazon gift card, or something to show them, not us.

So, where is that line between true empathy and opportunism?

According to Ed Gold, long-time head of advertising at State Farm and now CEO at Gold Consulting Group, “If opportunity is there, and the consumer is demanding it, business is obligated to meet the consumer where they are.... On the other side, these are unprecedented times and keeping the lights on is difficult for so many businesses.”

Kevin Ryan, CEO of Motivity Marketing, said, “There are fine lines to walk and paths not to be crossed, but a trusted brand should be there for its people. How you do that is specific to each brand.”

The good news, so far, is that I have not seen any blatant opportunism in the creative messages that brands are putting out. However, I have seen a few marketers show that they are either tone-deaf or not quick enough in reviewing and pulling the content that they are running.

The final phase of grief is acceptance. We are a long way from that and the unknowns of the extent of loss of life, economic damage, and the length of our home sequestering are all variables that will impact our psychology far beyond the actual moment that this ends. The rules of storytelling for brands will have to be rewritten. For now, empathy, authenticity, and common sense should rule.

But Wait, That’s Not All…

This past weekend, two of my daughters were watching Nickelodeon while I was working. It appears that few of the Nick’s advertisers have pulled back (and trust me on this one, I have been subjected to dramatic over-frequency of Nick’s core marketer stable thanks to my kids). There was oddly something comforting about seeing Fred Flintstone “Yabba Dabba Doo - Man”, Tony the Tiger, and many other normal, everyday kids’ commercials running without PSAs or COVID-19 updates.

In the late 1980s, in an episode of Thirtysomething that aired shortly after the first Gulf War, the nefarious, Zen-master CEO of fictional ad agency DAA, Miles Drentell, gives a timeless, but ruthless speech on the purpose of advertising: “We calm and reassure. We embrace people with the message that ‘we’re all in it together.’ That our leaders are infallible. And that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong. That is what we do. What we’ve always done.” The context of that speech was far more nefarious than the quotes indicate. However, for a brief moment, while watching plastic toy commercials on Nickelodeon, nothing was wrong.

Please, please stay safe and follow CDC guidelines.

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