Amid the Uncertainty, There’s Room for Levity in Ads

October 13, 2020

By Matthew Schwartz

Julia Tim/Shutterstock.com

When the coronavirus began to spread in late March, most brand advertising took on a somber tone. Accompanied by soft taps on the piano, the ads touted brands’ various relief efforts and called for unity.

At the time, the messages seemed to resonate with consumers. But as the crisis unfolded, people’s appetite for ads that emphasized the impact of the virus started to wane.

In early May, for example, more than a quarter of adults were interested in ads that talked about products and services, compared to 15 percent of adults in late March, according to a Morning Consult study of 2,200 U.S. adults.

Funny ads were also more likely to drive purchasing in late May (27 percent), compared to March (18 percent). Sentimental ads also inched up during that time period, to 21 percent in May, from 18 percent in March.

Coronavirus hospitalizations continue to climb in the U.S., with 11 states setting records for new cases for a seven-day period, according to USA Today.

Nevertheless, the Morning Consult data suggests that people started to suffer from crisis fatigue just a few months into the pandemic, and brands needed to respond accordingly.

But that’s not to give the pandemic short shrift.

“At this point, brands in the real world are taking action to comply with regulations and guidelines necessitated by the pandemic — that’s the action side,” says Victoria Sakal, managing director of brand intelligence at Morning Consult, who penned an article on the study. “But on the communications side, there’s room for levity, and brands are allowed to have different kinds of messages rather than a steady downbeat tone around the virus, so long as consumers are aware of [the brand’s] support in the fight against COVID-19.”

While consumers may be numb to ads that emphasize these uncertain times, there’s a growing acceptance of ads that illustrate the new norms spurred by the pandemic.

According to the survey, net purchase likelihood among U.S. adults toward companies whose ads show people social distancing, wearing face masks, and participating in video calls has increased.

But messaging surrounding the pandemic works both ways. For instance, the net share of U.S. adults likely to purchase from a company whose advertising shows people hugging was -36 in late March and stayed at this level through early May, while ads that portrayed people kissing saw net purchasing likelihood of -40 during the same period. Shares have slowly begun to improve in recent weeks.

However, the latest research, from September 20, shows net purchase likelihoods of -27 and -32 for ads showing people hugging and people kissing, respectively, pointing to improvements compared to May.

Asked if brands will need to get more imaginative when it comes to portraying public health guidelines and avoiding ads that portray physical contact, Sakal says: “Perhaps, but these stats — and their relative consistency over time, with the exception of recent weeks — suggest that certain boundaries [which have been expressed by consumers from the start] will remain boundaries brands should be conscious of.”

She adds, “Brands can get creative within those boundaries, but the guardrails are clear. This also raises a nuanced point that as consumers are gradually more comfortable with activities such as dining out and going on vacation [and messaging within ads], brands have a responsibility to act in the best interest of society and in alignment with health-forward mandates.”

The study underscores the need for companies to balance their brand messaging as the virus prolongs, but not to shy away from the funny.

“We’re in a world of hurt right now, and laughter can be a great tonic,” says Steve Cody, CEO and founder of the marketing communications agency Peppercomm, who is also a stand‑up comedian.

Cody points to Dole’s new ad campaign, titled “Quaran-Tensions,” as an example how marketers can get their message across using humor while acknowledging the disruption caused by the pandemic. (Dole is a client of Peppercomm.)

The campaign features a series of three ads with a light, yet relatable tone about how people have been cooped up at home with their kids during quarantine.

In one ad, called “Bad Words,” a young couple uses the term “fruit bowl” instead of swearing in front of their kids amid the chaos they are causing throughout the house. When the kids happily pour their smoothie drinks all over the living room floor, their mom responds: “Guys! What the fruit bowl!”

“Our [brand] purpose is to champion Sunshine for All [so] it is important to bring levity and ‘sunshine’ to all families during these dark times,” says Rupen Desai, CMO at Dole Packaged Foods. “By coming together and sharing honest moments we have in common — and sharing a laugh — we can help each other through this.”


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