Is it time to move beyond ‘now more than ever’ COVID-19 commercials?

Sources: "Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same"; Lincoln, Fareway Stores, Apple
May 07, 2020

The initial batch of ads arriving since the pandemic have largely embraced similar phrases, set-ups and emphatic tones. Is it best for brands to play it safe and follow suit?

The sameness was summed up in a YouTube compilation entitled “Every Covid-19 Commercial Is Exactly the Same,” from Sean Haney, a digital marketer at a software company, that’s made the rounds across agencies.

Combining commercials from Target, CVS, Apple, Budweiser and other brands, the parody shows how many executions start with somber music and images of empty streets, schools or playgrounds. A voiceover then details each brand’s long support of communities and how that will continue during the pandemic. Phrases such as “uncertain times” and “now more than ever” and words like “home” and “together” are found in many.

The ads close with rousing music and scenes of apartment and home dwellers applauding and banging pots from their windows or stoops in honor of frontline workers.

In liner notes, Mr. Haney said the repetition wasn’t so surprising given the quick turnaround time and risks in striking the wrong tone. He concluded, however, that the sameness is “perhaps a sign that it’s time for something new.”

A Wall Street Journal article covering the parody video said brands joining in on the style risk appearing insincere. The heavy drama could also be seen as “emotionally manipulative.” Nearly two months into the pandemic, offering solutions was one suggestion for brands.

Fiona Carter, chief brand officer at AT&T Communications, told the Journal, “As people settle into the stay-at-home and pause life, people are ready for more optimism and more forward-looking stories.”

Forrester analyst Jim Nail believes the next wave of ads will focus on recovery. He told The Washington Post, “They will continue to incorporate messages about how they are operating and protecting their employees and workers, but the main point will be, ‘Yes we’re back in business again; come spend money with us.’ ”

In an article for Fast Company, Jeff Beers noted that shifting away from reassuring messages risks “being labeled tone-deaf for acting like everything’s normal.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is the American public ready for advertising messages from brands that move on past reassurance and empathy? What would make your list of messaging do’s and don’ts at this point in the pandemic?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Everything around us has been so deadly serious for so long -- we're all ready for a bit of fun."
"While these ads certainly were in sync with the societal needs of March and April, households are now beyond the shutdown and the virus and are preparing for what’s next."
"What’s next? How brands and retailers are implementing safety measures to help reassure brick-and-mortar shoppers."

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28 Comments on "Is it time to move beyond ‘now more than ever’ COVID-19 commercials?"

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Suresh Chaganti

Brands need to actively listen for social cues. That said, I think the most sensitive times are behind us – March and April were super sensitive times with shortages on essentials, cleaning supplies and protective equipment. Anyone remotely looking to profit from that ran a high risk of sounding tone deaf and eroding the trust.

Now the time has come to slowly test the waters and rejigger the mix of empathy vs. virtues of brand and value propositions. At all times, staying true to the core values of the brand is critical. Anything inauthentic is easy to see through.

Bob Phibbs

There’s always a fine line but when these commercials were created we were still looking at more disaster by the hour. Now that 29 states have opened – regardless of what you think about that – people are mentally moving on from needing reassurance to getting on with their lives. I think the next phase will be unveiled shortly, “let’s get back to work” sounding more political than Kenny G.

Dick Seesel

The ads strike a suitably serious tone — especially given the ongoing loss of life — but they do become monotonous. It’s very difficult to walk the fine line between appropriate branding and bad taste, and the usual advertising tool of humor would seem off-key right now.

Most consumers still think that social distancing, masks, etc. are necessary precautions even as we emerge from our caves (despite the politicization of the issue) so it may be time for a more upbeat tone without losing sight of reality. But “hucksterism” is definitely not called for right now.

Jeff Weidauer

These commercials were never effective and smacked of gross insincerity from the start – just like the multiple emails from CEOs telling us how much they cared. Brands need to find positive messages and show what they are actually doing to make a difference.

Michael Terpkosh

I believe America is ready for different messaging. New messaging should be somewhere between the tone of current ads and the previous normal of “everyone is out in public having a good time in crowds” ads. Consumers will appreciate some new creativity and please, please retailers stop putting your CEOs on camera talking about everything they are doing to help America. At this point, these ads are becoming more self-serving than showing what is beneficial to consumers.

Lee Peterson

I don’t know about you all, but I’m COVID-19 burned out. All the way around. EVERY story in the news, ALL advertising, EVERY business conversation. I had an associate take a day off just to clear their head, good idea! I get it, but let’s move on to the new world.

Art Suriano
I think it’s time that we all focus on getting back to business. Everyone is aware of COVID-19. Half the population supports doing everything necessary to protect ourselves against the virus. The other half disagrees, and they are becoming more vocal. Facts go back and forth with most people uncertain what is real and what is not. It’s time for businesses to get back to business, and that starts with advertising. I’m not saying companies need to ignore what they need to do to protect their employees and customers, but it’s okay for a brief message merely saying, “as we are attempting to reopen our country, our company is taking the necessary steps” and then get into the ad. We have many great ads thanking all the important people that have helped save lives, and we should never forget them or their contribution, but we have to start to get the economy rolling again, and positive ads with good messages about products, price, and service is a great way to begin.
David Weinand

Yes, yes, yes. The sameness of messaging across the board rendered these commercials pretty ineffective. Clearly no one wanted to be sold to (same for B2B) so I understand the intent – but it is time to move to a message of hope and provide value around how the product(s) can help consumers adapt to the new normal.

Gene Detroyer

It was time to move past these commercials before they started. I don’t know about other people but I resent them and see them as being incredibly insincere.

I will go further and say that I believe what inspired these commercials had no sincerity involved. It was just about taking advantage of the situation.

Maybe some people appreciated it and will feel better about those companies, but not me. To me it is a huge negative. Shame on them!

Ben Ball

Folks often argue that the stock market gets ahead of itself because it is always pricing in anticipated future outcomes. In times of adversity, advertising should do the same. During the heat of the crisis, be silent unless you are offering some sort of concrete help. Then switch to a positive message ASAP. Most companies should have been advertising “what we’ll do when the good times return…” weeks ago.

James Tenser

I would agree, Ben, except that so few companies have a concrete idea about when the good times will return or what they are going to do to get there. At least their ad buys are keeping the TV networks afloat.

Cathy Hotka

Everything around us has been so deadly serious for so long — we’re all ready for a bit of fun. It’s time for some silly Cheetos ads!

Brandon Rael

Unfortunately the “now more than ever” narrative has become monotonous as we enter what our friends Kizer and Bender have called the “now normal.” Each commercial has the somber piano solo, the focus on family, and how many years the company has been in existence. The serious and supportive tone resonated especially during the very difficult and uncertain times we all faced in March and April. Now we are doing all we can collectively to restart the economy, all while being safe, taking precautions, and being considerate of others.

With the advent of social media, brands have every opportunity to listen, learn, and understand what messages and narratives will resonate. Social listening is part of the art and sciences of marketing in the COVID-19 and post-pandemic world. Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other social media outlets are prime playing grounds for gauging the consumer sentiment, concerns, and other drivers.

Ryan Mathews

So … faux compassion has jumped the shark, and it’s time to get back to business. Is that the idea? Well, while I know science and medicine are out of fashion these days, branders need to be very, very careful. The COVID-19 “curve” has “flattened” — not disappeared. Lots more people are going to get sick. Lots more people are going to die. And even if there is no viral surge after reopening — and that’s a big “if” — almost every serious expert anticipates a second flare-up this fall or next spring. Saying the wrong thing is almost always worse than saying nothing, so branders shouldn’t proclaim they are “reopened for business” — the next predictable cliche marketing meme — until the bodies stop dropping, we develop some effective COVID-19 palliative care, and/or we develop a vaccine that actually works. If I were a marketer, I’d tread very lightly until the path forward comes into better definition.

Dick Seesel

Yes, everybody (from the top down) is losing patience with staying at home, the closed stores and restaurants, the TV ads, and so forth. But you’re right — this is still deadly serious, and none of us should normalize or accept the idea of thousands of deaths every day. Pivoting to a more forward-looking message is probably around the corner for marketers, but let’s hope they don’t become tone-deaf.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

Yes it’s time, but periods of transitions require nuanced actions that are tricky to navigate. Do provide an upbeat vision of hope and the future. Don’t discount or ignore that many are still losing loved ones to the virus.

Brian Cluster

While these ads certainly were in sync with the societal needs of March and April, households are now beyond the shutdown and the virus and are preparing for what’s next.

It’s still going to be time to be sensitive going forward as households get active again and get back to work while still protecting themselves and their families. Brands need to continue to have a timely understanding of the pulse of their consumers. It’s important to know what their customers are into now, what are their goals now, and to tie that back to how the retailer’s/brand’s unique offering can help them.

With over 30 million out of work, I could imagine that there could be an opportunity to advertise how they can help folks re-enter the workplace with a refreshed attitude and wardrobe. Also it has been heavy in terms of emotion. I agree with Cathy H. that this may be the time to advertise that it is time to have fun again with a unique and new value proposition.

Doug Garnett

The American public is always ready for meaningful advertising which avoids attempting to use mere stereotyping and instead does the hard work of communicating.

At this point, ads need to offer meaningful value. So I’d lead with fundamentals of good products and reasons to buy from the company and relegate the COVID-19 related communication to the lower half of the ad. Perhaps reminders of purchase options, mask wearing, etc…

Liz Crawford

Social sentiment is moving fast – messaging needs to keep pace. Under “normal” conditions, television ads (and to some degree digital ads), can be repeated for months. Not so under COVID-19 conditions.

What’s next? How brands and retailers are implementing safety measures to help reassure brick-and-mortar shoppers.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

I’m over “Uncertain Times” so my advice for brands is to demonstrate what helpful, new solutions one can offer consumers.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

We are not even close to being through this pandemic so abandoning commercials about the pandemic and responses to it would be premature. However, advertising professionals are creative. There is no reason to hear and see the same phrases over and over!

James Tenser

Thanks for focusing us on this bit of video, Tom. It made its point and it made me chuckle. Slight quibble about calling this a “parody” however — it’s real stuff, just amplified by repetition into a social statement.

Advertising creatives should take this as a sign that they are not always the original thinkers they claim to be. Going forward, they would do well to shift to fact-based communications that answer some burning questions for consumers, like:

  • “How has your brand responded so far?”
  • “When can we get more of your product that the stores ran out of?”
  • “How are you taking care of your workers?”
  • “How can your brand help me?”

And if you have any fortune-tellers in your strategic planning department:

  • “How will your brand make things better for me down the road?
Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader, Advisor, & Strategist
2 years 3 months ago

Most of these commercials came off as pretty insincere and felt like an opportunistic way of keeping their brand name top of mind while everyone was busy thinking of more important things than consumer brands. So yes, it’s time to move on. Most consumers probably don’t want overtly obvious sales pitchy ads, but I suspect everyone is looking for a good distraction at this point.

Craig Sundstrom

I’m not completely on board with the premise that the ads are “all the same.” Are Christmas-themed ads all the same? Or back-to-school ads? Of course they share common attributes — hence “themed” — but there are differences in the purpose of the ads and the info given. The same is the case now: the ads will naturally evolve as more businesses begin (somewhat normal) activity and new info needs to be given out.

As for moving beyond, I think it’s already begun … didn’t I see a few — gasp! — handshakes in there?

Shikha Jain
At first, people wanted not to feel alone and to know that everything would be alright. But now many are ready to move beyond coping to finding solutions—work-from-home and stay-at-home and isolation solutions. They’re looking for the next thing to fill that gap left by the shift to a new way of life. The question is, what will companies bring to the table? What can they offer that’s of unique value and can fill some of that gap consumers feel currently and as they start to adjust to a new normal? The risk of being dubbed tone-deaf will always be there. It’s a fine line. But you don’t have to pretend everything’s normal to acknowledge that the world won’t be this way forever. People need things to get excited about right now. In some ways, showing consumers that your business is still going on heartens them that, indeed, life will go on, and there is hope for the future. In sum, do acknowledge the situation, but don’t dwell on it. Move beyond it, and show… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

Advertisers need to stop talking to us as if we are all victims. Not everyone is unhappy to be working from home … if they are, in fact still working. Advertisers need to talk WITH us not as survivors, but as “Thrivers” … those of us whom have looked at the challenges and thought through some of the most innovative solutions the world has ever seen. Enough of going so “soft” on us, and let’s all continue to grab this “bull” by its horns and THRIVE!

Sterling Hawkins

The American public is ready for authentic messages, which is and has always been the key. The listening of the general public has changed from a few weeks ago when it seemed the world was ending, to the slow reopening and emergence of new ways (perhaps permeant new ways) to do business. As advertisers can capture that sentiment I can’t imagine it would land as tone-deaf.