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Published on Mumbrella.

Plop yourself down in front of any and all media at the moment and within minutes you’ll be exposed to a glut of ads referencing COVID-19.

These seem to span from what I’m terming ’empty platitudes’ (not saying much more than ‘we’re here to help’, ‘we’re in this together’ or referencing ‘these uncertain terms’) through to an ‘overload of specificity’ (listing any and all ways brand X is helping in laboured, legal team-approved detail).

What’s becoming apparent though is that consumers are getting tired of sombre, piano-filled montages of empty landmarks, CEOs sat in their studies and stock footage of sad-looking folks staring at camera. A thread I stumbled upon while browsing Reddit includes a quote that rather neatly sums up this sentiment in a way only Reddit users can:

“If I hear ‘during these uncertain times’ in one more commercial, I’ll scream.”

Social media tells a similar story: Search for ‘during these uncertain times’ or ‘we’re here to help’ and you’ll come across hundreds of posts from vexed keyboard warriors. Helpfully, a YouTuber has even put together a compilation of COVID-19 ads highlighting just how comically similar they all are.

This is, of course, hardly the most scientific method for garnering consumer sentiment. So let’s have a look at some of the more traditional sources too.

Google/YouTube examined the performance of ads on YouTube in March and found that “the vast majority of top-performing ads running on the platform in March are legacy campaigns that did not reference the crisis or reactions to it”. Furthermore, “Most ads include ‘traditional’ behaviours from pre-COVID: parties, hugging, shopping, etc”.

That same report also references the difficulty of differentiating at the moment. With so many brands taking a narrowed view of what’s appropriate in terms of tone, standing out is incredibly difficult.

As one particularly erudite Twitter user put it: “I will buy the absolute shit out of any product whose ads make me giggle right now”. Nice.

Let’s focus on humour for a moment then. In a Kantar study from the earlier stages of the pandemic, 40% of respondents said brands ‘Should avoid humorous tones’. Yet in a followup piece of research, ads they tested that included humour actually performed particularly well, as consumers felt they provided some much-needed light relief – as good a reminder as any that there’s often a big difference between what consumers say they think and their actual reactions to stimulus. Interestingly, only 8% of respondents felt that brands should stop advertising altogether.

A Global Web Index report found that half of all Aussies approve of brands continuing to run ‘normal’ advertising; with over a third indicating ambivalence – basically (and somewhat unsurprisingly), a lot of people just don’t think about ads that much. GWI also found that 70% of us approve of brands providing funny or light-hearted videos or content to entertain people.

Finally, a Bastion study found that 30% of people claim there is an information overload about COVID-19. This aligns closely to the sentiment we’re hearing from the media through our counterparts in PR – there is a rising demand for non-COVID-19 news stories that will help them strike more of a balance.

So what does this all mean? Right now, ads that aren’t virus-centric can in fact provide us all with a nice little break. Having said that, deciding how much emphasis to put on COVID-19 isn’t necessarily cut and dried. To quote Google’s report one last time: “Creating work acknowledging COVID-19 can show empathy and relevance, but it’s easy to lose brand distinctiveness. Not acknowledging can seem tone-deaf or out of touch.”

Finding this balance is more straightforward for brands with a clear and direct role to play (e.g. cleaning products) and much harder for those with a role that’s adjacent at best (e.g. fashion retailers).

As restrictions ease and the light at the end of the tunnel glows ever brighter, we need to start considering the importance advertising has in providing a sense of normalcy to people. Running ‘standard’ advertising (hugs, handshakes and all) could well be a great way to differentiate the brands we represent right now. The inclusion of humour could be even more effective than usual.

It is easy at the moment to double down on conservatism. But by doing this, we risk seriously impacting memorability, message takeout, brand-building effects and more. To be clear, we absolutely need to be sensitive. But if we’re able to help provide consumers with some light relief or a reminder of the life we all so badly want to return to, that could be a very powerful thing indeed.


For more information on culture during the pandemic, see our Disruption service, providing knowledge on how brands can best respond, recover, and revive from this unprecedented crisis. 

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