The Role of Advertising During COVID-19

Advertising During COVID-19

Uncertain times naturally lead to apprehensive attitudes and behaviors from consumers and companies alike.

Uncertain times naturally lead to apprehensive attitudes and behaviors from consumers and companies alike. With new updates and regulations on COVID-19 being released every half hour, it’s difficult to plan ahead. Family vacations cancelled, local restaurants shut down, and priorities have shifted. While consumers are bulk purchasing basic need items and postponing discretionary spending, brands around the world are working quickly to re-frame their business strategy to fit these changing demands.

Businesses that had developed marketing campaigns encouraging spring shopping have put work on hold as to not appear opportunistic or insensitive. They’re pressing pause and pivoting messaging in order to maintain relevance and show support during these challenging times. But do consumers really want to see specialized messaging from brands during a pandemic? Especially when it’s produced in a hurry with so much room for error?

COVID-19 will become an important chapter in history books regarding economics, social norms and the modern human response to pandemics. However, we have lived through recent pandemics at a smaller scale such as Ebola, SARS, H1N1 and MERS, the last of which resulted in more than 200,000 deaths in one year. The United States has faced at least 47 recessions since its inception. Even in these transitional periods, it’s important for businesses to remain smart and not cave in to the panic.

When times are good you should advertise, when times are bad you must advertise

As the popular saying goes, “When times are good you should advertise, when times are bad you must advertise.” So what message have brands been sharing over the past few weeks with their consumers as the novel coronavirus has made its presence known across America?

With a projected 38% decrease in digital media ad spend for March/April but only 28% for May/June, it appears as though many businesses are pulling their current campaigns in preparation for revised and more relevant work. At least 63% of brands are making advertising messaging strategy changes as a result of COVID-19 with refreshed creative already spotted across cable television and social media. [1]

In a recent survey conducted by our staff, many were surprised to see the quick turnaround and proactivity by brands. Guinness was one of the first, releasing a special St. Patrick’s Day message on March 13, 2020, acknowledging that “while we know this year things feel different, we’ve learned over time that we’re pretty tough when we stick together.” This message of strength and unity hit screens across America on a day when many were just beginning to see their world turned upside down. Being the first can often prove to be unfavorable, but Guinness’ St. Patrick’s Day spot, debuted during the onset of the novel coronavirus in the US, is now the top ranking beer advertisement of all time according to Ace Metrix.

Another early adopter of coronavirus specific advertising was Ford Motor Company. On March 16 they launched two spots titled “Built to Lend a Hand” and “Built for Right Now.” In our agency survey of more than 100 respondents, these videos were the most recalled advertisements over the past two weeks with distinct COVID-19 messaging. Ford has received praise for not only helping their customers by providing special offers on their automobiles, but also for directly helping the cause by renovating its Michigan plant to manufacture ventilators. Ford’s advertising efforts have led to a positive net sentiment according to a Netbase analysis of social media responses, with one person tweeting, “These COVID brand response commercials are so well done @Ford.” More specifically, people are taking note of Ford’s efforts beyond offering a message of support;

“Ford is an example of one of the many American companies who are transforming their businesses to help combat both the #coronavirus directly and the financial & economic distress so many Americans are feeling.”

Many non-essential industries have been hit hard by the economic impact of a world where people are unable to travel, shop in stores or attend live events. Some of these brands are fortunate enough to maintain at least a portion of their media spend, such as which released a spot featuring their notable hero, Captain Obvious. Despite not having an immediate product offering, was able to utilize its media spend to do some public good promoting social distancing. People took notice of this and responded positively online. “@hotelscom excellent commercial. They’re always extremely entertaining, especially since it’s been a catch phrase I’ve said since I was a teen ‘captain obvious.’ But this commercial was just perfect considering everything going on.” Even the brand’s naysayers had something positive to say. “You have to hand it to they came right out with a ‘stay at home commercial.’ Hate the commercials but that one was surprisingly responsible.” Nike was also able to capitalize on its ads, despite store closures. Nike’s “Play Inside, Play for the World,” ad was met by the public with open arms. “Nike is harnessing its brand power for a coronavirus PSA. More brands should follow,” tweeted one twitter user. Nike’s messaging resonated with their consumers so much that their fans began tweeting out videos of how they are playing inside.

Based on social listening, it can be said that consumers have two main concerns regarding COVID response advertising. The first being that they do not appreciate ads that simply offer up a message of support. Verizon’s “We’re Here. And We’re Ready,” messaging did not sit well with consumers. In fact, there were many people talking online of how Verizon hadn’t been there for them in response to COVID-19. However, social mentions did turn positive when Verizon focused it’s ad efforts towards a philanthropic cause entitled #PayitForwardLive. These weekly live streamed concerts earned them favorable engagement such as “Love One Republic! Verizon will donate $10 to small businesses for every hashtag.”

The second concern raised by people on social media was around advertising distrust. Tweets like, “how do companies like burger king, pollo tropical, popeyes have coronavirus food delivery commercials so quick? It’s like all of this was planned.” Or, “how did everyone from HR Block, to Popeyes, and Olive Garden etc. make new commercials to advertise their covid measures…? Did they socially distance themselves while filming new commercials? How?” While those in the advertising industry may understand the production method, consumers are a little wary. Which means it’s more important than ever to put out a strong message that resonates with consumers, rather than just touching on the crisis as if one were ticking off a box on a checklist.

Both Popeye’s and Burger King created ads and messaging based on contactless ordering and delivery services. However, one fared better than the other. Popeye’s took an innovative approach, by offering their Netflix password to up to 1,000 fans on Twitter under the premise of ‘Fried Chicken and Chill.’ Although their campaign rendered a positive net sentiment reaction from fans, they also faced a lot of backlash for a decision made in their video editing. As one twitter user pointed out, “@PopeyesChicken actually decided to remove this Asian guy from their commercial.” Which, as expected, led to many people calling out Popeye’s for racism.

Burger King on the other hand, took the safety messaging a step further and entered into philanthropic efforts. Amidst concerns that many school aged children would now go without lunch due to school closures, Burger King offered free kids meals. “Amazing how people will discredit anything good someone does. The fact that they are doing this is very cool. Parents are stressing, and if they are going to step up that tells me a lot about the company.” Another person tweeted, “@BurgerKing thank you. Although I don’t have the need, it is admirable. You will gain my business.”


Brands should continue to advertise during times of pandemic and recession and adapt their messaging to fit the moment.

If budgets allow, brands should consider adjusting, but still continuing their advertising. As audiences shift their interests, then you need to be a part of that conversation. Your brand should be present in the lives of your audience no matter the economic circumstance to demonstrate stability and retain awareness. This advertising endurance has been proven to increase sales. During the Great Depression, Kellogg’s doubled their advertising spend while packaged cereal category leader, Post, cut back their budget significantly. Kellogg’s even launched a new cereal named Rice Krispies during this time. By 1933, profits increased 30% and Kellogg’s had replaced Post as the top cereal brand, a position it has now held for decades.

Many brands have experienced growth during difficult times because they took the opportunity to increase market share when competitors pulled back. It’s easy to do nothing and attempt to wait out the storm, but by maintaining your brand presence through advertising, you are showing commitment to your product and also your consumers. If you choose to go quiet right now, you may be quiet for a while.

If you’re going to do something, do it well.

Inboxes have been flooded with company emails explaining safety precautions and steps taken to support both customers and employees. While these updates seem mandatory, they are becoming repetitive along with the constant influx of news and buzzwords surrounding the coronavirus. Based on our friends and family survey, the majority of participants felt concerned and overwhelmed after viewing COVID-19 related ads, some stating that they are a constant reminder of the somber reality. How can we as advertisers spread optimism and positivity instead?

Companies that are adapting their ads to reflect this new normal need to stay strategic and on-brand in their messaging. Brands know their audience better than anyone and should be able to directly address new consumer challenges. There’s no need to remind the world of regulations or the current obstacles that we all face. Guinness, whose recent St. Patrick’s Day spot rated high on both likeability and relatability, never encouraged social distancing, but it did contain a positive message of unity, upbeat music, and high quality branded imagery. Now more than ever, consumers want to be understood and entertained.

Stay relevant but don’t be opportunistic

Brands are always battling to stay relevant in the marketplace and a sudden change in reality can cause an immediate negative reaction to what was once thoughtful marketing. Commercials featuring gatherings of people, friendly hugs and “finger lickin’ good” slogans are suddenly cringeworthy as our brains are re-trained to perceive these usually pleasant moments as shocking. As an advertiser, you certainly do not want to be perceived as ignorant to your audience.

There’s a fine line for advertisers between being strategic and opportunistic in moments of adversity.

Companies should use empathy when developing all communications as consumer understanding and decisions may be led by emotions versus logic. Stories of kindness and positivity will resonate as this is a rare occasion for brands to appear heroic and humane. Messaging around products or services should not be forced as that can appear advantageous instead of helpful.

Don’t just talk about it, take action.

Recent advertising is all echoing a similar message of support as businesses push to prove that they are “here for you” and “here to help.” These popular phrases are meant to be powerful words of solidarity but words can only go so far when people are anticipating solutions from companies that they trust. We’ve seen an overwhelming amount of comments from consumers in our survey and across social media who are disappointed in the lack of intention. One response says,

“I feel optimistic when brands are leading with their actions and not just messaging. I don’t think it really does anything to have a feel-good commercial at this time and not actually do anything to help.”

The beer and alcohol industry has received praise for their efforts as many have donated to causes supporting bartenders, switched to hand sanitizer production, and hosting free online concerts as upcoming sponsored events are canceled. What can you offer? Revisiting business models and encouraging innovation within your company can lead to successful initiatives even on a local level. Brands need to communicate value and take action.


If your brand needs help taking action during this time, we’re here to help. To get in touch with our team,

click here.