At the start of the pandemic, consumers were bombarded with a new and hastily built form of advertising. In those “uncertain times,” customers were promised, they could count on their favorite brands for help.
The advertisements, often featuring sombre piano music and statements that everyone “was there,” were ubiquitous. Now our research reveals the tactics behind them and why consumers should be wary of the marketing they encounter in a crisis.
When COVID-19 was new and confusing, when governments weren’t sure how to respond, corporate advertising tried to define the pandemic in such a way that companies — and their products — became an essential part of whatever the solution turned out to be. We found that from mid-March to the end of April 2020, companies used ads to tell three main types of stories about COVID-19.
Some, such as global shipping giant Maersk, highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the supply chain and pointed to their role in helping to get essential equipment to the right places. This kind of marketing defined COVID-19 as a logistics crisis — an issue for which business executives could claim to have the most specialized expertise.
I am happy to report that the inaugural flight of the Maersk Bridge is on its way to Denmark. The Maersk Bridge is an airlift and supply chain for the purchase and transportation of personal protective equipment, including millions of masks, for Danish healthcare workers. pic.twitter.com/ghEL7iZyS3
— Robert Uggla (@RobertUggla) April 7, 2020
Others, particularly consumer goods brands like Starbucks, focused on the financial side of the situation and their role in donating food or money to those in sudden need. This kind of marketing defined COVID-19 as a capital crisis. If the problem is not enough money, rich corporations can invade like heroes by quickly freeing up some.
Millions more Americans could go hungry as a result of the effects of COVID-19. If you are able, please help us provide assistance to our neighbors in need with a donation to @FeedingAmerica. https://t.co/UJ70TQWI5n pic.twitter.com/0eMQcb4UYK
— Starbucks coffee (@Starbucks) April 16, 2020
Then there were those, especially fashion and luxury brands, who focused on the emotional impact of the pandemic, pointing to their products as ways to make the experience easier and even fun. These ads made it clear that personal consumption – shopping out of lockdown – can be a form of humanitarian heroism, with you as a grateful recipient, or a way of taking care of yourself.
Late capitalism is nothing but predictable. pic.twitter.com/vYpi0P14iN
— Kate Cronin Furman (@kcroninfurman) March 19, 2020
But there were risks to these messages, and they didn’t all end up well. Some ads seemed oblivious to the wider social issues that made the crisis more difficult for some.
Fashion ads targeting women who described the pandemic as a sort of “staycation,” for instance, stood uncomfortably alongside news reports of women leaving the workforce under the crushing burden of childcare and housework.
Ads for e-cigarettes encouraging consumers to vape “for your health” sparked a backlash as hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients on ventilators.
Some companies even provoked consumers by mocking the severity of the pandemic, including an Italian ski resort that invited travelers to “experience the mountain with full lungs” in a place “where feeling good is contagious”. Elsewhere, social media companies struggled to stamp out misinformation from “influencers” hired by wellness brands to promote untested products as a COVID-19 cure.
Even ads that took the pandemic seriously were on shaky ground. As the UK came out of its first lockdown, cleaning brand Dettol went viral (in the wrong way) when it appeared to encourage commuters to return to the office. Some consumers confused the ads with announcements from government agencies promoting shopping as a way to stimulate the economy.
There was some truth in the misconception, as Dettol was the government’s business partner in sanitizing public transportation. Indeed, several brands in our survey cited partnerships with government as one of the benefits of the crisis. Meanwhile, more and more ads have appeared encouraging consumers to shop to “help” the economy (and businesses in it) rebuild.
Advertising that addresses social concerns is common, not only in relation to COVID-19, but for a range of causes where consumers are poised to see business solutions for everything from poverty to climate change.
Consume with a conscience?
Our research shows that such ads are often designed to influence the way the public understands social problems, encouraging people to view ethical consumption as a way to help.
Others have argued that such charitable marketing “creates the appearance of giving back, disguising the fact that it is already based on taking away.” Consumers can be dissuaded from campaigning for more radical change, assuming they have already played their part by buying ‘ethically’.
A well-known example is when companies boast that a percentage of the proceeds of certain products goes to a social cause. The amount donated is often small, while the revenue the new product generates for the company is significant.
As another commentator put it, “If we insist that this is the only way to effectively tackle massive social problems, we are resigning ourselves to a world dictated by consumer impulses.”
So the risks of linking a social issue to an advertising campaign are significant – for the company, the consumer and the business itself. Our research shows that not every time is the right time to advertise. We have to watch out for brands with gifts.
Maha Rafi Atal is a lecturer in global economics at the University of Glasgow School of Social and Political Sciences. Lisa Ann Richey is professor of globalization at Copenhagen Business School.