How The Pandemic Is Changing Advertising So far, 89% of large advertisers delayed ad campaigns that would seem tone-deaf during the pandemic. Advertisers say: "What works has changed."
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How The Pandemic Is Changing Advertising

A man walks in front of a closed bar advertising Corona beer in May 2020. Jerome Delay/Associated Press hide caption

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Jerome Delay/Associated Press

Piano music intended to make you think, scenes of empty streets and talk of "uncertain times" are the new cliches in advertising.

"You can only salute the essential employees so many times, and at some point that message loses its impact," said Northwestern University marketing professor Tim Calkins. "So many advertisers even use the same wording."

Ads relevant in March may seem tasteless now, according to ad agencies, who said they're in a tough spot because of the public's changing perception of the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, ads that resonate with New Yorkers can fall flat in places like rural Missouri, experts said.

WBEZ talked to a Northwestern marketing professor and two ad agencies about what makes a good ad during the pandemic.

Tim Calkins: "What works has changed"

So far, 89% of large advertisers delayed planned ad campaigns that would seem tone-deaf during the pandemic, according to a World Federation of Advertisers survey.

But 60% of major companies have cut advertising budgets. One International Advertising Bureau survey estimated budgets will fall even further than they did during the 2008 financial crisis.

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Calkins said it's ironic that the need for new, relevant ads is so high when ad budgets are so low.

Calkins said agencies are wondering how to motivate someone to purchase their brand in a way that's relevant without coming across as too heavy handed.

"What works has changed," he said. "At the beginning of this, companies ran some very heart warming spots that really seemed to connect. They seemed real; they seemed on point."

He pointed to this Sam's Club ad that ran in March, which showed employees working to "The Weight" by The Band. Calkins said that the commercial resonates because people still depend on those workers for essential goods. But this approach won't work forever.

Calkins said some brands, like Etsy, are actually evolving because of the pandemic. The demand for masks doubled the company's sales in May, the Verge reports.

"They are doing it in a way that is very focused on staying home, but not in a sad way," he said. "There's lots of neat and fun things that you can find on Etsy, and they're responding to what's happening in the world."

Cramer-Krasselt: Corona beer is different than coronavirus

Early in the pandemic, news outlets misreported this survey and claimed 38% of beer-drinking Americans would not buy Corona beer.

This freaked out Cramer-Krasselt CEO Peter Krivkovich, the ad agency that markets the beer. He said they had to act fast to make a campaign that felt true to both the brand and the potential consumer living through the pandemic.

They advertised around Corona's $1 million contribution to a National Restaurant Association employee relief fund, with a TV spot about the small businesses that sell the beer around Cinco De Mayo.

Krivkovich said it's become important to focus on building relationships and camaraderie with potential customers, rather than using well-worn cliches.

"I think the brands that are aware of that are going to maintain their friendships, and those that don't are going to be looked at just sort of like carpetbaggers," he said.

And Corona sales? They're up 20% from when the pandemic began, Krivkovich said.

But in some ways, alcohol sells itself during a time when people are bored and shut in.

Other brands — like Marzetti salad dressings — could take advantage of new pandemic needs.

Krivkovich said the agency developed quick and easy recipes using the dressings geared toward inexperienced home cooks.

That gives people experiences they'll remember, he added.

"Hopefully when this whole thing ends, when we reach the light at the end of the tunnel, we're going to have some friends," he said. "You've done something for them that actually helped them in some way.

BBDO: From "highly emotional" to comedy

During the first weeks of the social distancing in the United States, ad agency BBDO produced a Jack Daniels campaign called "With Love, Jack."

Co-Creative Officer Josh Gross said "With Love, Jack" was released when the videos of Italian musicians playing from balconies were going viral and Americans were just beginning to stay at home.

Social distancing was new and foreign, so pairing it with sad piano music was right for the moment, he said.

"As an agency, we were all finding little creative ways to stay social with each other and make it enjoyable," he said. "We knew there was something powerful there."

But as people settled into quarantine, BBDO Co-Creative Officer Pedro Pérez said they wanted to poke fun at quarantine in a series of ads for the British candy Maltesers.

Pérez said the spot works because it's not using comedy for the sake of comedy — it's rooted in the reality of the consumer.

"The new frontier for brands is pivoting from highly emotional messages that every brand did in some way to connect with the consumer now to evolve and find how the consumer is feeling."

BBDO also advertised for the bourbon Old Forester with a "turtle derby" when the Kentucky Derby was postponed. Gross said the event was inspired by a 1945 turtle derby that took place when the U.S. government banned horse racing during the first half of the year because of World War II.

The difference is that this year ESPN aired the highlights.

Vivian McCall is a news intern at WBEZ. Follow her on twitter @MVivianMcCall.

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