how businesses have used COVID as a marketing tool

At the start of the pandemic, consumers were bombarded with a hastily constructed new form of advertising. In these “uncertain times”, customers were promised that they could count on their favorite brands for help.

Advertisements, often featuring dark piano music and statements that everyone was “in the same boat”, were ubiquitous. Now our research is revealing the tactics behind these ads and why consumers should be wary of marketing in a crisis.

When COVID was still new and confusing, when governments weren’t sure how to react, corporate advertising sought to define the pandemic in a way that made businesses – and their products – a critical part of any solution. . We found that from mid-March to the end of April 2020, companies used advertising to tell three main types of stories about COVID.

Some, like global shipping giant Maersk, have highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the supply chain and underlined their role in helping get essential equipment to the right places. This type of marketing has defined COVID as a logistics crisis – an issue for which business executives might claim they have the most specialized expertise.

Others, particularly consumer goods brands like Starbucks, have focused on the financial side of the situation and their role in giving food or money to those in sudden need. This type of marketing has defined COVID as a capital crisis. If the problem is not enough money, then rich corporations can become heroes by freeing up money quickly.

Then there were those, especially fashion and luxury brands, who focused on the emotional impact of the pandemic and pointed to their products as ways to make the experience easier and even fun. These ads showed that personal consumption – shopping from your lockdown – could be a form of humanitarian heroism, with you as a grateful beneficiary, or a way to take care of yourself.

But there were risks associated with these messages, and not all of them landed well. Some advertisements seemed to ignore the broader social issues that made the crisis more difficult for some to endure.

Fashion ads targeting women who described the pandemic as some kind of ‘stay’ for example, were uncomfortable with reports of women leaving the workforce under the overwhelming burden of childcare and housework.

E-cigarette ads encouraging consumers to start vaping “for your health” sparked a backlash when hospitals were filled with COVID patients on ventilators.

Some companies have even taunted consumers by mocking the severity of the pandemic, including an Italian ski resort which urged travelers to “live the mountain to the fullest” in a place “where feeling good is contagious.” Elsewhere, social media companies have struggled to eliminate misinformation from “influencers” hired by wellness brands to promote untested products as cures for COVID-19.

Even advertisements that took the pandemic seriously ended up on shaky ground.

As the UK emerged from its first lockdown, cleaning brand Dettol went viral (in a bad way) as it appeared to encourage commuters to return to the office. Some consumers have confused the ads with government public service announcements promoting shopping as a way to stimulate the economy.

There was a grain of truth to the misconception, as Dettol was the government’s business partner for sanitation of public transport. Indeed, several brands in our research mentioned government partnerships as one of the benefits of the crisis. Meanwhile, ads encouraging consumers to shop to “help” rebuild the economy (and the businesses that make it up) have proliferated.

Advertising that addresses social concerns is common, not only in relation to COVID, but for a range of causes where consumers are willing to see enterprise solutions for everything from poverty to climate change.

Consume in conscience?

Our research shows that such advertising is often designed to influence how the public understands social issues and encourages people to view ethical consumption as a way to help.

As others have argued, such good cause marketing “creates the appearance of giving back, masking the fact that it is already based on withdrawal.” Consumers may be deterred from campaigning for more radical change, believing that they have already played their part through “ethical” purchases.

A familiar example is when companies boast that a percentage of the proceeds of certain products goes to a social cause. The amount of donations is often small while the income that the new product generates for the company is considerable.

As another commentator put it, “If we insist that this is the only way to effectively solve massive social problems, we resign ourselves to a world driven by consumer drives.”

The risks, then, of attaching a social issue to an advertising campaign, are considerable – for the business, the consumer, and the cause itself. Our research suggests that now is not always a good time to advertise. You have to be wary of brands that offer freebies.


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