The Shifting Tone of Ads in the Covid-19 Crisis

Some ads were more unique than others…

Advertising during a crisis. It’s not easy. Especially when that crisis is a global pandemic.

Today’s ads don’t just need more creativity than ever. They also require an ability to read the public mood, to show empathy and to talk to the moment.

The shifting tone of advertising throughout the Covid-19 crisis says as much about us as it does about the brands we follow.

So, how should marketers and advertisers speak?

Of course, there’s no definitive right answer. What makes one person smile might anger another. Timing, context and brand is all crucial.

In this article, I’m going to show numerous examples that track the very different tone that brands (and even entire countries) have had to walk throughout this process.

Unusually, I’m going to start from the current time (July 2020) and walk backwards over the past few months.

Table of contents

Light-hearted advertising during lockdown lifting

The lockdown lifting (in the UK at least) was marked by brands using a much more optimistic, uplifting tone. While a month earlier, businesses would have found it extremely damaging to strike such an upbeat tone, many companies decided that this was the moment to signal a return to normality.

But of course, the best ads had to find a way of referencing the time we’ve all been through. To ignore it completely would still be seen as tone-deaf and out of touch.

Here’s an effort from Carlsberg which ran across most digital channels as well as outdoor slots in early July.

I think this is a pretty good balance.

It’s smart to reference the apps and services that have been part of our everyday life.

That’s especially true when the trajectory for Zoom downloads up to the middle of March looked like this!

Source: appfigures

Whether they called it too quick, only time will tell.

Going slightly further back, but still towards the end of lockdown, was this ad from Hun Wine, who are normally a huge festival presence in the summer.

They decided to use the medium to poke fun at themselves, which is a clever idea at a time like this.

We all find it amusing to see a good head-slap moment at someone’s expense and this ad was a clever way of striking the balance between humility and humour.

Hun: wine brand planned to launch during festival season
Credit: Hun Wines

Gratitude ads during the peak

Thursday evenings in the UK were marked at 8pm with a country-wide clap for NHS and key worker heroes.

This was a popular message for many brands, marking the mood of the nation as people began to pull together.

Gratitude was a safe and popular message at a time where people had started to pause and reflect at the huge sacrifice of key workers across the nation.

Credit: Camden Lagers

A tone of togetherness during the crisis

Plenty of adverts during this period built on the sense of ‘doing the right thing’ and a feeling of community that had built up.

In fact, brands had a huge part to play in building this sense of togetherness.

At a time where people around the world were volunteering in huge numbers and doing whatever they could to help, brands reflected this message in a memorable way, including Nike.

This Nike ad is empathetic, instructional and entirely on brand.

Credit: Nike

The message of togetherness was echoed by multiple brands throughout the initial surge.

Here’s the official hashtag of the Premier League.

No fans allowed back in stadiums for a year? Premier League on ...
Credit: The premier league

And here’s a longer copy ad from Nationwide.

The tone is empathetic and strikes a note of togetherness.

Credit: Nationwide

As a bank during a time where millions are facing financial worries, their tone couldn’t really be anything but serious and helpful.

Interestingly, almost every brand started their communications during this period with something along the lines of:

In these unprecedented times…

At this time of need…

During these tough times…

As the crisis unfolded, it felt less and less necessary to begin sentences with this disclaimer. It was obvious to all that we’re in ‘unprecedented times’ and I did notice brands start to find more creative, interesting ways to reference it.

The word unprecedented definitely started to feel like lazy writing.

As lockdown started some ads already felt tired

Another interesting point about ads during the lockdown period is that it should have been a time for really great creativity and outside-the-box thinking.

Having a completely different angle to go at should have felt like a real opportunity for creatives to cut through.

Instead the opposite happened in some cases, where brands independently had the same (limited number) of thoughts and ended up copying and duplicating each other to the detriment of their own message.

I’m personally not a fan of logo tampering anyway as I think it feels gimmicky, but I’m surprised so many brands went down the same route when it became obvious they’d all had the same idea.

Creativity anyone?

Slightly better were the brands who changed their tag lines, if only because there was a bit of variety in each one to start with.

Here’s McDonald’s with their effort.

Credit: McDonald’s

Slightly smarter was this effort from Coca Cola.

Credit: Coca Cola

Certain brands turned the situation into a feature

This ad from Jeep is one of my favourites. It does everything a great advert should attempt.

It’s contextual. It. plays with people’s understanding of the brand and the product. It’s inoffensive and universally understood.

Here it is:

Jeep: Explore The Great Indoors
Credit: Jeep

A lovely, simple campaignable idea.

It’s also nice piece of commentary for the situation we all found ourselves in.

Jeep: Explore The Great Indoors
Credit: Jeep

Some businesses used social distancing to make a point

Some brands did use the crisis more creatively, veering off the ‘togetherness’ messaging to power home their own message, using social distancing to do it.

Here’s an example from Shelter Charity.

I like this, firstly because it’s an important message, and secondly because it’s one of those very rare ads during this time which doesn’t put humans first.

This makes it a refreshing read and a refreshing message. It’s also a powerful one.

Credit: Shelter now

Data-driven visuals became the new normal

Another clever way that brands adjusted their tone was to play on the visuals that we started to see day-in-day-out. Suddenly, our world was charts and data points as we all tracked the curve, infection rate, death rate and more.

We were fed this information from almost every source, from official government releases, to charts in papers like the financial times.

Just like Zoom and Microsoft teams became the new normal for our daily interactions, this data centric approach also became part of our news consumption. Crucially, data became so important to everyone during this time that it was highly trusted.

Here’s an interesting piece using World Health Organization data, elevated and made far more emotive with the clever visualization of the American Flag.


Credit: WHO data

Official organizations maintained a factual tone at the peak.

Generally, official organizations adopted a more factual and simple tone, characterized by slogans designed to instruct the general population.

There was no time for cleverness here and rightly so.

Here’s an example from the Australian Government.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Print ads – Good hygiene is in your hands ...
Credit: The Australia Government

Some countries had to use a harder tone than others

Even in governmental messaging, the communications put out did vary in tone from country to country.

This example from the UK government differs quite significantly from the play on words of the Australian release above.

The tone couldn’t be more serious or demanding.

This reflected the vast differences in the UK and Australian situations, with the UK suffering a far higher death toll.

This was an attempt to pull the situation under control, not to simply administer advice.

Credit: NHS England

What next for the way we speak about Covid?

As the crisis continues to evolve, it seems like brands are gaining confidence about how to speak and becoming increasing bold in their tone.

The focus is set to move to the rebuild, which will present fresh new challenges for everyone.

How our biggest consumer brands approach this stage will help define the recover for many business around the world.

However, what will happen next in this crazy, unpredictable year is frankly anyone’s guess…

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