Predicting the Next Stages of COVID Advertising
If you took an hour of commercials airing on NBC this week and showed them to October 2019 society without context, we would have nightmares. Or at least be really confused.
COVID advertising is weird, and - to me - appears to be moving through distinct stages. For fun, and probably the clicks, I’m going to predict how COVID advertising will play out over the next few months as we return to normal. As I see it, there are 4 stages.
STAGE 1: We’re In This Together / Look How We Are Helping
So here’s the deal: the advertisements you see where brands congratulate nurses, doctors, and service workers aren’t pure benevolence. They’re the result of:
- a need to use pre-bought media time
- and/or pre-allocated budgets
- and/or significantly discounted rates as a result of advertisers pulling out of spots.
At the beginning of this pandemic (relative to local hysteria), advertisers had to very quickly shift to a new message. A placeholder, even. It became very taboo very fast to be hard-pitching while we were collectively worried about becoming sick, or the impact on our communities.
Some are positioned as altruism and ‘skip’ brand.
Some are product-centric altruism that reinforces the brand.
Some are brand pitches veiled so thinly they might as well not have bothered: see Bell’s ‘look how hard we are working’ spot.
There are many examples.
The message is so boilerplate that many parodies popped up.
- We’re all in this together
- New normal
- Rising to challenges
- Thank you, frontline workers
This was in stage 1. We now appear to be phasing out of phase 1. Onto stage 2…
STAGE 2: Yeah, things are bad but you *deserve* to spend money
This is the part of the piece that combines my observations with predictions.
So now that Mr. and Mrs. Corporation have paid their goodwill dues for all that cheap ad space, they have the moral high ground to start pitching at us again. I keep seeing this message in some form or another:
“You deserve new workout equipment.
You deserve a break.
You deserve a new car.
You deserve to shop online.
Because it’s tough right now.”
It’s pretty easy to draw the correlation here: we are stuck in our homes and spending less. Like, a lot less. Even the businesses that are open have been hit, which is interesting given significantly reduced competition. We just aren’t spending as much money.
Why aren’t we spending?
Because we’ve either lost our jobs or are feeling more financially insecure. It’s easier to spend when you’re sure you’ll have a job in 6 months. But now we are collectively wondering if our jobs, our businesses, or our economies will survive.
Enter the word ‘deserve’.
Deserve is not ‘need’. ‘Need’ would diminish the realities of our situation and appear inappropriate. We NEED doctors and nurses. We NEED clean water. We do not need the delicious taste of a McDouble(™) delivered by the friendly folks at DoorDash(™). Using ‘need’ terminology would be perceived as callous.
Deserve is also not ‘want’. Marketers work hard to blur the lines between needs and wants. It’s sort of our deal, if we are being honest. All purchase decisions are emotional. That normally flies, but right now it’s risky. Because this is a rare moment in which we are collectively aware that ‘wants’ might need to be set aside for the greater good. Ads suggesting that needs are enough reason to spend have a high risk of being called out.
But, of course, we have a word.
‘Deserve’ does the trick. In two syllables, it acknowledges the realities of the situation (this is not a need) while giving you permission to recategorize your own desires (this is a hard time, I don’t just WANT a Slurpee, I DESERVE a Slurpee).
Marketers have always used this trick - Skip The Dishes’ slogan is “You deserve great delivery.”
We will just start seeing it more as marketers remain sensitive to coming across as sales-y, manipulative, or tone-deaf. Right now, it’s heavy in food advertising, expect to see it roll out in more areas.
STAGE 3: “Back to business, but it’s not business as usual.”
First off, this is the ‘educated guess’ stage of my piece. Because I don’t have evidence yet, but I know it’s coming.
This stage, the final stage, will be about advertisers giving themselves back permission to hard-pitch products. Numbers are down, and they need to make sales. They’ll position this altruistically, because it will still be too early to get back to full-on capitalism.
The angles they are likely to choose are:
- Job creation/economic impact (America will state this as patriotism, Canada as community growth)
- Referral to the good they do charitably because you buy stuff
- “Thanks for sticking with us”, if they stayed open and now want to blitz
- “We want you to know how cautious we are”
Stage 3 will see a deeper focus on the people behind the company. We will see direct appeals for business and support. It will be the closest we get to large-scale use of the phrase ‘please buy from us thanks’ since the early 1900s.
Of course, brands are brands and they’re going to need an angle to make that pill a little harder to swallow. Because the pill they’re being asked to swallow is: “Our CEO needs a bigger bonus”. Late-stage capitalism is a dream world.
So to conclude Stage 3, here is a sample script. When we get to Stage 3, I’ll come back and grade myself. If the phrase ‘Back to business, but it’s not business as usual’ isn’t used in a major campaign I’ll donate some money to charity.
STAGE 4: Let’s Never Speak About This Again.
At this point, brands have done their time in the pandemic.
They’re congratulated by doctors, nurses, and frontline workers. Or patted their own backs.
They’ve told us that we deserve to buy things because pandemics are hard.
They’ve told us that we should really start buying things we don’t need because it’s the right thing to do for their workers and our communities.
And now, it’s back to business. We will never speak about this again. Why? Because it’s gonna bum us out and make us remember the times when we were scared about money. That tightens purse strings.
Once this is over, brands will almost never talk about it again in ads*. Mark my words. (Unless I’m wrong, then I’ll delete this.)
*There will be heavy PR efforts to remind us how much they helped us out.
So there you have it. My semi-educated, loud guesses about COVID advertising as we move through these unprecedented times. Rising, together.
What are your predictions? Let me know!