Pandemic advertising is getting freaky

The ad business faces a crisis: How do you sell in such a strange time?


April 30, 2020

You probably won’t be shacking up in a hotel anytime soon. But that hasn’t stopped Hotels.com from churning out ads that feature its nautical pitchman washing his hands and urging customers to socially distance.

Why? According to one theory, the companies that advertise the most during an economic downturn do the best when the job market bounces back.

Right now, there’s a $10B+ hole in the television ad market. Big spenders like Airbnb are halting their marketing, and the cost of digital ads has dropped by at least ⅓ .

Those companies still tossing their products into the ring are facing an impossible question: How do you advertise when customers are so unlikely to buy?

Ads have never faced this many pitfalls 

Does your pre-pandemic ad feature people hugging or shaking hands? That’s a no go. Too many jokes? You just look out of touch.

Where does that leave you? Sounding like everyone else.

A now-ubiquitous form of pandemic advertising features somber music, phrases like “in this uncertain time,” and an uplifting round of applause at the end.

Everyone is reevaluating: Lifestyle influencers, confined to their backyards, don’t know how to promote products right now. There’s a PR hotline for publicists struggling to pitch journalists respectfully.

Elsewhere in the ad world, a separate crisis is brewing: Those fancy Mercedes-Benz ad shoots? Canceled.

As the pandemic rages on, ads will soon feature fewer sleek road shots and more drone footage and animation — those are the cheapest promos to cut from home.

Everybody’s ‘Zoom ready’

Take the beauty industry: It’s dumping smoky eyeliner in favor of more subtle skin- and eye-care products that look best on video chat. Revlon, for instance, offers to help you curl your lashes “even if you can’t curl up to your special someone.”

The Atlantic dubbed this the era of “disastertising,” and it looks a bit like this:

  • Burger King wants you to become a Couch Potatriot in service of social distancing.
  • Pepsi committed $3m to restaurant workers during John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” YouTube series.
  • Crocs donated 10k+ of its iconic clogs to healthcare workers, then paid Priyanka Chopra to post about it.

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