Should marketers keep masks out of commercials?

Discussion
Photo: Instacart
Aug 12, 2020
Tom Ryan

Face coverings may be part of the new normal, but not many commercials are showing people wearing masks. One reason may be wanting to keep the messaging focused on more upbeat themes.

Southwest Airlines, for instance, recently returned to TV advertising with a campaign encouraging consumers to “give in to your wanderlust” with flights to nearby open spaces. Unmasked couples are seen mountain biking, hiking and strolling on a beach.

Southwest debated internally whether to include face coverings given that they are mandatory on flights.

“It’s an open question,” CMO Ryan Green told Adweek. “Depending on the environment you’re showing, there’s an element of responsibility there. Marketers need to be thoughtful; we’re just going on a case-by-case basis.”

A new study from Ace Metrix finds part of the reason masks are somewhat scarce in commercials may be the challenges of filming amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Certain categories such as cosmetics and toothpaste are hard to advertise with faces covered.

Yet despite the controversy over mask mandates, Ace Metrix’s study found that, overall, a vast majority of consumers are not sensitive towards masks in ads — or the lack thereof — unless it is the central focus.

Among the findings:

  • Making masks a focal point: Among the ads featured, viewer sentiments were found to be overwhelmingly favorable because the masks were authentic and necessary to the storytelling. Making masks as a product being sold or using masks to sell products, however, can heighten perceptions that the brand is seeking to exploit a tragic event.
  • Subtle mask inclusions: When not the sole focus of the ad, mask inclusion remained a trivial aspect in terms of effectiveness. As a group, however, the subtler mask ads stirred up more polarizing sentiments. Ace Metrix wrote, “Perhaps, the more forward ads benefitted from messaging that clearly made the case for masks, whereas subtle ads left viewers to draw their own conclusions.”
  • Ads without face masks: The exclusion of masks in ads did not evoke feelings strong enough for most viewers to even comment on their absence. Other creative elements had a greater impact on their effectiveness.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Would you generally encourage or discourage advertisers from showing people with masks in commercials? In what situations would showing masks prominently or subtly be relevant versus irrelevant?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Showing people shopping without masks in commercials is like showing people driving without wearing a seat belt. "
"The opportunity to go maskless in remote, sparsely populated areas could be part of travel companies’ value proposition."
"If a retailer is requiring customers to wear masks, then their advertising should support this message."

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35 Comments on "Should marketers keep masks out of commercials?"


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Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

The answer to this depends entirely on the circumstances; there is no hard and fast rule. A holiday advertisement featuring a family at home is clearly not going to have masks, the same is true for folks dining at a restaurant; however people sitting on a flight, maybe. I’d also say that while masks will likely be around for some time – and their usage may remain elevated after this is all over, similar to how it has been in parts of Asia for a long time – advertisers might be conscious that mask wearing is a temporary measure and may not want to embed an image of its permanence.

Bindu Gupta
BrainTrust

I agree with Neil. Brands need to make sure they are not tone deaf to the current environment but depending upon the context and objective of the ad, as well as the type of industry they are in, they can choose to include or exclude the mask. Another way to ensure social responsibility is to incorporate a message/disclaimer in the ad which expresses the brand’s take on social distancing and stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust

Context matters. Every single time. Setting the stage and context is entirely up to the creators of the ad. So it is quite possible to come up with an advertisement where both options – showing or not showing masks — could feel OK and not come across as tone deaf.

Bethany Allee
BrainTrust

What Suresh said. Context is critical. I’d add that normalizing masks is a good thing in terms of social responsibility.

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

I encourage advertisers to incorporate masks in their commercials where appropriate. Since the pandemic appears to be here for some period of time, having masks in commercials will help normalize their use – this can be a positive encouragement for those who have resisted. Also as a viewer/consumer, I get comfort when I see a business use masks and include masks/mask use in their commercials because it leaves the impression that the company cares about health and safety, and sends a message to prospective customers – masks are important.

David Naumann
BrainTrust

This is a tough question and the answer is “it depends.” It depends on the product or service you are promoting. If you are promoting or showing a shopping environment or experience, then a mask is appropriate for your commercial to show that you are making your environment safe for shoppers. If it is a manufacturer’s commercial about a product and the environment is in a consumer’s home it depends on how many people are in the commercial. If there is a large group that looks like a party, then masks are appropriate. If there is only one person in the ad or the people are outside at a safe distance, then a mask shouldn’t be needed. This is a gray area!

Rodger Buyvoets
BrainTrust

The problem with not showing masks in commercials is that it doesn’t normalize the idea of a mask – something that needs to happen given that people need to commit to wearing one. But of course, it doesn’t need to be shown in every advertisement. It’s especially relevant in situations where people are in places where masks are necessary, e.g., grocery stores, restaurants, commuting, etc.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

Most advertising has some element of aspirational message in it. Whether it is feeling better, looking better, having more fun, or simply looking forward to better times. I don’t think many consumers are looking forward to wearing masks for any longer than absolutely necessary.

Michael Terpkosh
BrainTrust

Early in this pandemic I stated the marketing industry needed to get in-tune with current events. Stop airing comercials showing big crowds, busy restaurants and other large social gatherings. I absolutely encourage advertisers to get with the program to show people in masks. If a retailer is requiring customers to wear masks, then their advertising should support this message.

Scott Norris
Guest

It feels not only tone-deaf but kind of ominous now to see large groups without masks on TV, and in advertising it absolutely shouts “we don’t care about your well-being as a customer.”

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

Given how some people are treating grocery workers, it is a must to show them! Showing people shopping without masks in commercials is like showing people driving without wearing a seat belt. Give grocery and all retail workers a break by reinforcing the wearing of masks in all commercials.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

It is now a felony in Illinois to assault a retail worker who is enforcing face mask rules.

storewanderer
Guest
1 month 10 days ago

As it should be in any state with a mask requirement in place.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

I agree that it’s all about context. Southwest’s decision to not mask people biking, hiking, and on the beach makes sense because you do not necessarily need masks in those situations. I would, however, expect to see people masked on an interior shot of a plane.

Masks aren’t necessary in commercials depicting people in their homes, driving cars or doing outside activities, but shouldn’t commercials reflect real life? If a commercial is shot inside a store then people should be masked.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

At this point, I think the people need to be wearing masks in commercials and if it helps to subliminally remind people to wear them, then all the better – no matter if the commercial is aspirational or not.

Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

I would discourage advertisers from showing people with masks. They get in the way of the people being clear about what they are saying, and the there is no possibility of the virus transmission over the Internet or television. If the idea is to communicate that the company making the product is doing so with employees wearing masks, it adds little value to the product pitch. It may make sense for Southwest Airlines to wear masks in their commercials since people will be worried about close contact on an aircraft, but this is a rare exception.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

The Southwest commercial is a perfect example of a masked or unmasked decision. They clearly picked activities where being unmasked was appropriate. They did not show people boarding or sitting on the plane. A perfect decision.

(I just got pushback on this here at home. No, it’s not a perfect decision. They should at minimum show the crew with masks and set the tone of what people should expect when they fly. The commercial gives the impression that travel is mask free and that is the wrong message.)

It is all about the situation. Buying peanut butter at the supermarket –mask. Spreading the peanut butter on a slice of bread in a kitchen –unmasked.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

In contexts where mask wearing is encouraged or mandated, it makes sense to show them being worn in commercials. It not only gives customers the sense that mask wearing is normal, but it also signals that the retailer in question is looking out for its associates. It may be a subtle cue that “mask wearing is expected on our premises.”

For a family at home or in a car? Not necessary. But ordering at a fast-food counter or standing in line at a grocery store? Absolutely.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

By the way, on Al’s comment about polarization, here in Wisconsin (where the Democratic governor and Republican legislature are always at odds with each other), the Governor’s recent mask mandate has just hit a 70% approval rating. (I can’t recall Wisconsinites agreeing on anything at that rate, unless it pertains to the Packers.) The normalization of mask-wearing on TV commercials — and the implicit “permission” to wear them — may have something to do with it.

Al McClain
Staff

Living in South Florida, and in a state with over 500,000 cases of the virus so far, it astounded me early on to see local commercials with no social distancing and no masks. The same for local newscasts. But, I guess I’m immune to it now. Ads that don’t take into account the “new normal” still seem a bit odd to me, but everyone down here is exhausted, and there are a lot of people who are going to shop, dine in, frequent clubs, not socially distance, and try to go back to the “old normal”, science be damned. So, I guess it depends which group of people you prefer to appeal to, because it’s totally polarized, at least here.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

You are so right, Al. It is exhausting. Stay safe!

storewanderer
Guest
1 month 10 days ago

Similar story where I live in Reno, NV. It is like “the old days” again generally speaking. People are wearing masks, yes. People do not social distance at all and lots of stuff going on in groups of more than 6 people. Restaurants are busy (surprisingly few have gone out of business), casinos very busy especially on weekends (many drive up tourists), the airport is having signs of life and running out of rental cars, Lake Tahoe area is an absolute zoo, it is so crowded. One exception is the local Simon Mall in Reno: that place is a ghost town during the week, and looks about how it used to look during the week (sprinkling of cars and people) on weekends.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

How did we actually get here? Now showing masks in commercials requires a risk/benefit analysis by marketing? I am simply astounded by how far we have fallen. If portraying actors in masks when in a mask-appropriate context costs advertisers some business, as depressing as that statement may be, so be it. Normalizing masks will only help us all get back to business more quickly, and portraying masks in advertising is part of the cost of doing business. The ads, even if they turn off a few viewers in the short term, will have a higher ROI in the long term if we all stick together on this issue and get this virus under control.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

Masks are now part of our social fabric. Advertising that doesn’t incorporate face coverings in the depiction of real-world scenes where they are relevant and appropriate suggests that the brand is either blind to our current “normal” or using it as a vehicle to share their political compass. Context and storytelling is a fundamental part of advertising. People are drawn to brands that they trust and, in our current environment – where they feel safe. Brands that choose not to convey that foundational element are missing an appropriate and relevant opportunity.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Although I don’t like the fact that masks may be a long-term trend in our society, I do believe that advertisers should take the safe route of messaging by including innocuous mask placements to help ensure the brand does not seem ignorant to the majority of the audience’s concerns.

Brian Numainville
BrainTrust

In the supermarket space it would seem wise to show masks. In our recent study, 68 percent of shoppers indicated that a store providing masks and/or gloves for employees was a highly effective safety measure.

Rachelle King
BrainTrust

There is certainly a social responsibility here for brands and it’s a fine line. While most marketers embrace their charge of fueling inspiration and ambition, few would find a face covering delivering on either. Nonetheless, in this time of social responsibility, all marketing efforts should be evaluated through the lens of relevance and social responsibility. If face coverings are relevant to the story they are telling and likely to be used in this new normal, then yes, they should consider showing the face covering.

However simply encouraging face coverings from a social responsibility platform may be harder because the message still needs to be relevant, authentic and non-alienating. For example, Nike may be able to encourage runners to (safely) wear a face covering when out for a run but the same message coming from L’Oreal may not land as well.

Brands will need to continuously evaluate every opportunity to be situationally relevant and socially responsible in this new normal.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

The answer, of course, is both. If marketers have learned anything from social justice and being attuned to societal needs and wants, then how can any ad fail to include both scenarios? Even the Southwest example — they avoided showing anyone on an airplane. When was the last time you boarded a completely empty plane? The people they showed engaged in outdoor activities were shown without masks in an environment that was appropriate. They could have shown the flight crew and passengers boarding a plan with masks to set an expectation.

Retailers who run ads with customers in the store shopping should be showing both associates and customers wearing masks. And let’s not forget about social distancing. Ads should not be showing anything with large crowds at this time unless they are showing proper social distancing. It’s all about being as responsible as the audience you are trying to target.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

Authentic brands are taking a stand and adapting to consumers changing needs during the pandemic. When it makes sense — like shopping in a store, exchanging goods — absolutely, masks should be worn and shown in commercials. Modeling good behavior is essential and our industry especially WMT are walking the walk.

Jasmine Glasheen
BrainTrust

Advertising needs to feel of the moment to be relevant, so I feel that masks in advertisements should be standard during this time.

Yet I agree that context matters. A couple walking along a deserted beach probably wouldn’t wear a mask, while an airplane full of crowded passengers would. The opportunity to go maskless in remote, sparsely populated areas could be part of travel companies’ value proposition.

storewanderer
Guest
1 month 10 days ago

Yes. No need for masks in marketing materials. Masks are only temporary. These commercials and ads may be used long after the mask requirement is over.

Face is an important piece of many ads and there is absolutely no reason to cover it up with a mask.

Lauren Goldberg
BrainTrust

I don’t think there’s a “one size fits all” answer. It depends on the product and setting. But above all, it needs to be authentic and relevant. I agree with Southwest that you wouldn’t see people wearing masks hiking or on the beach with people in their household. On an airplane, shopping in a store, being at a busy place are all different situations. If a retailer is going to create a new ad showing an in-store environment, I believe they should be good corporate citizens and show people in masks.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

How can an advertiser be socially responsible if they don’t show people with masks? Not taking a stand on this is such a negative message that I would consider not using the product again. Maybe the cost would be more to produce more commercials when this situation ends, but it is a small price to pay for setting a good example.

Allison McGuire
BrainTrust

Ads should represent real life, so if you’re showing a situation where people would be wearing a mask today, then you should have them. The ad that caught my eye recently was for a casino and the actors had on masks. Definitely a smart choice, but I lost the smiles and the emotion. We have to get creative if we want to drive traffic and sales while still being socially responsible.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

Yes, we should be marketing masks along with our products. This is what everyday life looks like, and any good marketing leader knows how important it is to build a brand that is realistic.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Showing people shopping without masks in commercials is like showing people driving without wearing a seat belt. "
"The opportunity to go maskless in remote, sparsely populated areas could be part of travel companies’ value proposition."
"If a retailer is requiring customers to wear masks, then their advertising should support this message."

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