Advertising in the Age of COVID

I’ve just begun to write for Marker, a Medium publication. I will be putting a critical spin on what advertisers and marketers are doing. I’ll also look at how media and media habits are changing.

Here’s the first piece. You also read it here.

During the worst pandemic in history, marketers are at a loss. Frankly, they should be.

Now is not the time to put out a sales message or anything resembling one. The economy is tanking, retail stores are closed, and nearly 10 million Americans have just lost their jobs. The only things people — note that I do not say “consumers” — care about buying right now is food and toilet paper.

Evidence of how flummoxed marketers are can be seen in the advertising created during the initial onset of this crisis. Numerous advertisers redesigned their logos in an attempt to promote social distancing. McDonald’s separated its arches. Audi unlinked its rings. What was the point of that? What consumers need right now is information. Redesigning logos doesn’t provide knowledge—it increases confusion, especially when you consider that people are seeing these images as they rapidly scroll through social media. Will they really think “social distancing” when they see these logos? I doubt it.

A twist on this utterly self-serving practice are commercials that thank workers under the auspices of the brand. The perfect example of this is Walmart’s ad honoring its workers with David Bowie’s “Heroes” as the underlying music. Does Doug McMillon, president and CEO of Walmart, think Walmart associates are heroes? Maybe. But paying low wages, providing paltry paid leave, and lousy, if any, health insurance belies this. Amazon — Walmart for the 21st century — came out with an identical spot called “Thank You Amazon Heroes.” Incredibly, this ad launched at the same time that news outlets reported employees walking out due to unsafe working conditions. These companies can’t suddenly claim the caring mantle.

The worst example to date is a promotion from Popeyes Chicken. Consumers were expected to buy Popeyes products and post themselves eating it on Twitter with the hashtag #ThatPasswordFromPopeyes. The first 1,000 people would be given a username and password for Netflix so they could “fried chicken ’n chill.” The ad even suggested how superfluous this promotion is: “Where we come from, everyone is family. And families share video streaming accounts.” Exactly. Everyone already has a free account, so what is the point of this offer?

In all three instances, the advertising focuses on the brand. Redesigning a logo or thanking your workers with your logo all over the commercial or creating a promotion that provides no meaningful value is saying, “Look at us! Think about us!” The whole point right now is that we have to think about others.

Some have equated this time with what we experienced after 9/11. It is and it isn’t.

Back then, companies like Chevy and Budweiser wrapped themselves in the American flag. That made sense. These are strong American brands. Other companies tried to do the same and failed miserably. Today, however, there is one key difference. After 9/11, President George W. Bush told us all to go shopping, to shore up the economy to demonstrate that the terrorists did not win. This time, there is no shopping. There is no quick fix.

The only job of companies right now is to act like good corporate citizens. That means supporting their employees, giving money to the communities within which they exist, and using their expertise to help in whatever way they can. If you are a food company, donate food; if you are an electronics company, donate computers so all students can work at home; if you are a health care company, support those workers on the front lines. Consumers expect companies to be committed to a cause — in this case, the cause.

Given this, it is surprising that a company like Johnson & Johnson is nowhere to be found, except in announcing that it’s in trials for a vaccine and will get $450 million from the government to produce it. That’s good news, but how come “the caring company” is not out providing much needed health care supplies in every way it can? Or why isn’t Google, which the president famously oversold for creating a website that provided information about where to find test sites, servicing only four sites in California? A technology company that generated more than $100 billion in revenue last year could surely make this system more widely available.

All of this is not to say that marketers should sit on their hands. They shouldn’t. If a company has something to say now about legitimate, helpful actions it’s taking to make a difference, say that. Budweiser is a good example. Its crisis commercial connects sports references to visuals of those fighting the coronavirus. The “Magic” is a teacher reading a book to her class in front of a computer. The “Braves” are delivery workers. The “Angels” are health care providers. The copy says, “This Bud is for the home team,” while the screen says, “This season, we’re all One Team. We’re shifting our sports investments to help our heroes on the front lines. By using stadiums to host American Red Cross blood drives during the Covid-19 crisis.”

If you aren’t doing anything yet, start. There is no better time to move away from Milton Friedman and toward conscious capitalism. Like Budweiser, you have to rethink your ad buy. That freed-up money can be used to implement philanthropic works that companies don’t have the time or inclination to do under normal circumstances. Use that money to shore up health care for workers, to feed people, to help pay rent, to fund research, to pay for education, or even distribute free toilet paper. The need is too great right now not to get involved.

Boldly, executives at Comcast will forego their salaries so they can continue to pay salaries and benefits to workers. That’s caring and tactical — the executives are being compassionate while also being acutely aware that they will need those people when this is over, and that’s okay. It is an investment that will pay dividends. When all of this is over, the companies that lent a helping hand will be rewarded, not the ones who redesign a logo.