Companies are advertising... just not with ads

When you can't advertise during coronavirus, you have to get crafty

[Note: Originally published April 22, 2020 on my now-defunct Substack]

Advertising in the age of coronavirus

Look at any metric of ad spend, and it's down. With people stuck at home, there's nothing to buy except flour and yeast and dried black beans (if you can find any of them), nowhere to travel except Costco, and nothing to experience except existential dread.

But back to advertising... The plummeting ad rates come as more people are glued to screens - TV, computer, or iPhone. There's more ad opportunity, but less ad value. People are hammering through the ad-free libraries of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu. And where there are ads, there is just less value in each unit of advertising, because companies are advertising for what? People to go out and buy stuff?

Hanging onto share of mind is important, because at some point we'll be on the other side of this. But companies can't simply roll ads that were made pre-Coronavirus, for fear of being tone deaf to the current situation (WSJ recently wrote about some advertising gaffes, such as "Finger lickin' good").

Ipsos wrote that sudden escalation of social distancing and in-home isolation ushered in unexpected circumstances, influencing brand purchases.

They also said the pandemic is an opportunity for brands to reorient around actions, rather than just just message:

This pandemic presents a critical moment for brands, an opportunity to align what they say - their reason and purpose, with what they do - their real and tangible behaviours. Above and beyond the social role of companies and corporations, consumer-facing brands have a chance to connect and bring meaningful benefits to people, for example, alleviate feelings of isolation and provide safety and comfort when the future is uncertain.

Companies can't simply make new ads, either. Social distancing makes it hard to bring a bunch of actors and production staff into a tight room to film a commercial, or getting a team of editors into a small workspace to polish off an ad.

So with that combo - less valuable advertising and an opportunity to rebalancing a brand’s core message - companies are advertising, just through actions, not traditional print/commercial/display ads.

Instead of splashing ads on 30-second commercial spots, or even 6-second pre-roll ads on YouTube, many companies are trying to position themselves as do-gooders amid the coronavirus pandemic: +

  • LVMH Moët Hennessy is using some of its production facilities to make free hand sanitizer.
  • Burger King is giving away two free kids meals with any purchase (made through its app)
  • Airbnb is working with hosts to provide free housing for first responders.

Ad budgets are being replaced by strategic giveaways. I think some companies might find tactically offering products to those in need pulls the heartstrings and deliver more value than one of those “aw shucks” toothpaste Super Bowl commercials (at $5.6M for a 30-second spot).

If anything, we might even see this trend accelerate as there's less and less content out there to advertise against. Companies don’t want to advertise against coronavirus-related content online (and what else is out there right now?). There's no sports on television, most produced TV shows are in hiatus, and consumers might circle back into Netflix's ad-free zone after exhausting the ad-supported libraries of CBS All Access, Peacock, and Quibi.++

One word of caution, however...

Follow-through is important.

+ See: Business Insider 12 innovative ways companies are helping people affected by the coronavirus

++See also: Matthew Ball's recent post, The Impact of COVID-19 on Pay-TV and OTT Video

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