How Advertisers Scrambled To Ditch Ads And Shift Messaging During The Coronavirus Pandemic

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In the aftermath of mass closures and stay-at-home advisories due to the pandemic, it felt like all companies wanted consumers to know one thing: that now, more than ever, they're here for us. Ninety-two percent of marketers adjusted their message since the pandemic began, according to the National Association of Advertisers.

The results, at least at first, were strikingly similar:

"Brands really wanted to let you know that they're still here to help you solve problems," said Kelly Fredrickson, president of the Boston-based ad agency MullenLowe. "I think the problem was that everybody just said the same thing."

But, where brands go next is a "high wire act," John Carroll, WBUR senior news analyst, told Radio Boston. "You want to have your brand have some share of voice during this time, but you don't want to seem to exploit the situation."

Carroll pointed to a Kantar study that found 75% of people said brands should not exploit the health crisis. But, only 8% said they shouldn't advertise at all.

Both spoke with Radio Boston on how else the advertising industry has adjusted.

The following excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity.


On other ways advertisers initially responded to the pandemic: 

Carroll: "Advertisers [had to switch out a number of ads] in the early phases of the pandemic. [They realized] their ads were completely inappropriate. Geico had an ad with people high-fiving that came down. Kentucky Fried Chicken ceased to be finger-licking good because that wasn't working at the time. Beer companies had to take down any ad that had a crowded bar scene. Part of them was just a practical nature of it. The other part of it was trying to be in sync with the situation on the ground."

Fredrickson: "One of our clients, Royal Caribbean, had a lot of outdoor [ads] in New York that we had paid for and to pull out of that wasn't something that we could do. Instead, they donated that advertising space. That's what a lot of marketers did as well, rather than change their message. They donated it to nonprofits so they could get their message out. That was another tactic that some brands took."

On an advertisement from Guinness that came out after St. Patrick's Day parades were canceled that Fredrickson said struck the right tone: 

Fredrickson: "What I love about the ad is the optimism ... and the sheer enjoyment. They are taking a moment, St. Patrick's Day, which is celebrated by lots and lots of people, regardless of heritage. And it's like: What do you need? You need a pint and to celebrate, and we will march again. That just speaks straight to the human spirit. We are a resilient species. ... It was one of the first ads I saw out there that acknowledged what we were all going through without saying that we were in it together."

On how companies are adjusting their messages — again:  

Fredrickson: "Twenty-six percent of the social commentary on COVID is actually very light-hearted now. People are sick of brands talking about being 'here for them,' and they want to hear what brands are doing for them. It's definitely shifting. It's a narrow line. ... You just have to stay in tune and engage in the moments with your consumers. That's a hard thing for brands to do on a continuous basis, but it's necessary."

On an ad from Burger King, that took a more light-hearted approach, and heralded its consumers as "couch-patriots" for staying home and ordering food in: 

Carroll: "That's basically targeted in a way that sort of mocks the conventions of advertising. The ad is kind of a meta ad because it's taking this format that is used in other situations and adapting it to this one. I think it is clever, and it uses a familiar sort of template to turn the expectations on their head. It's smart and self-aware, and it's, you know, sort of collaborative. It brings the consumer in on the joke."

On how it's important what companies are doing — not just what they're advertising — during this public health crisis: 

Carroll: "There are situations now where [there's] ... let's say, duplicity. Wal-Mart, for instance, started out running an ad about its employees being heroes. Wal-Mart is notoriously bad at taking care of its employees. Reports have come out that they've been holding back on safety equipment, they've been holding back on paid leave. Some of these things really can be counterproductive [for these companies], if people are following the news [and ads/messages] are out of sync."

Fredrickson: "What we talk about with our clients a lot is actions over advertising. The way that a brand behaves, the way that a brand shows up in someone's life is as important as the way a brand talks about itself. [As brands] you can assist, you can unite or you can delight with your marketing... You've got to do something for them because a lost customer today could be a lost customer forever."

This article was originally published on May 12, 2020.

This segment aired on May 12, 2020.

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Zoë Mitchell was a Radio Boston producer and studio director.


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Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.



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