On the TV, a bearded man sits alone in an empty white room. He’s dressed like a military officer in a campy musical and is holding a giant bowl of popcorn that he touches only after using hand sanitizer. It’s a 15-second advertisement starring Captain Obvious, the spokesman for Hotels.com, urging everyone to keep their hands clean and practice social distancing.
“Just stay home” seems like an unusual sell from a hotel-booking service, but these are unusual times. Companies large and small are figuring out how to make ads that don’t seem insensitive or as if they’re from a different time, when people took beach vacations, ate in restaurants and wore shoes.
On television, brands are switching to reassuring platitudes, telling viewers, “We’re in this together,” or in the touching words of one toilet paper company, “Together, we’ll keep America rolling.” On social media sites like Instagram, more advertisements are targeting those shut in, with extremely to-the-point messages shilling sweatpants, wine and food delivery, DIY hair dye kits, and home-office gadgets.
“It’s not easy. It’s our job to sell stuff, and selling stuff right now is not really the answer the world needs at the moment,” said Quinn Katherman, the creative director behind the Captain Obvious ad who works at ad agency Crispin Porter Bogusky.
This is not the first time companies have had to navigate an economic downturn or national tragedy. After 9/11, many switched to serious, patriotic or sensitive ads or avoided advertising at all. According to Forrester analyst Jay Pattisall, previous research has shown that brands benefited in the past when they continued advertising during economic downturns, like the ones in 2001 and from 2007 to 2009.
“There has been an argument that brands that maintain their advertising and marketing spend during an economic downturn tend to fair better in a recovery,” Pattisall said. “They maintained their presence and have not allowed any erosion or competitive threats to come in and take customers away.” However, he says a forced shutdown of typical consumer behavior is different from just a financial crisis.
Instead of trying to strike the right note for selling insurance or cars while sales are plummeting, many companies have decided to temporarily cut down or stop advertising altogether. Ad sales are expected to drop 2.8 percent this year, according to media researcher Magna Global — an amount that would be much smaller without an expected $4.9 billion of political ads later in the year. The price of TV spots has dropped even though more people are watching, according to Pattisall. Last October, the WARC, the World Advertising Research Center, predicted that global advertising spending would reach $656 billion in 2020.
Vicky Bretzke, a 56-year-old from Oviedo, Florida, has seen a number of coronavirus-themed local ads on television, including one from the hospital AdventHealth praising its workers and another from a tractor company telling customers they’ll get through this together. Car companies are offering zero percent interest and reminding people they’re considered essential, just in case they have a hankering to buy a new sedan. And she has seen restaurant ads about safety practices for food, which she says she finds reassuring.
“I feel for them. I know they’re all struggling to be supportive and also want your business,” she said. “That has to be a fine line: Be supportive and stay home, but also get online and buy from us.”
Making new ads to entice consumers such as Bretzke has required quick thinking and creative editing.
Hotels.com had different ads planned for spots it had already purchased, but as hotels were shutting down to comply with state and county orders, it had to change course, fast. The company already had a video shoot scheduled in Los Angeles the second week of March — days before the city’s stay-at-home orders went into effect — with Captain Obvious actor Brandon Moynihan. That morning, before cameras were supposed to start rolling, the agency wrote new spots from scratch.
“It just really felt like our messaging that was in those existing ads would have been a little tone-deaf,” Katherman said. The original ad would have been a more traditional commercial for the company.
Instead, Katherman and her team went in a direction that would become familiar in the coming weeks: a sensitive public service message with a touch of humor. While other brands have followed suit, many are stuck working with footage they’ve already shot or with stock video. Some, like Domino’s, have turned to Zoom to create ads with people using cameras from home. However, many ads have started to look the same.
“They all have similar messaging that’s a little somber, a little low-key,” said Randy Cassimus, a casual TV watcher and director of annual giving at the St. Anthony Foundation in Oklahoma City. Even though all the ads are starting to blend together for Cassimus, he’s not sure what else the companies can do. “You can’t be funny because there’s nothing funny about this. You can’t be too lighthearted, but then you don’t want to be too serious. They’re all going down this same avenue that they’re really stuck in.”
The next wave of TV ads could largely focus on safety and supporting workers, says Forrester analyst Jim Nail. Large restaurant chains are touting new options like contactless delivery, while Amazon has an ad saying it is working to “keep our people safe.” Amazon has come under fire for its treatment of workers, with some staging protests to demand better safety. Amazon has disputed those claims.
(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“Next it’s going to be recovery ads,” Nail said. “They will continue to incorporate messages about how they are operating and protecting their employees and workers, but the main point will be, ‘Yes we’re back in business again; come spend money with us.’ “
It’s a hard time for the advertising industry, for companies selling products that are not in demand and for industries such as news outlets that depend on ad revenue. But it’s a boom time for any company selling pants with elastic waists online.
While TV ads are typically purchased in advance, digital advertising is easier to cancel, buy and change on short notice. If they’re able, companies can shift some of their ads to search and social media sites as more purchases move from the real world to online, according to a report from Forrester.
On social media sites and display ads on websites, companies are switching to taglines that urge people to look “Zoom ready” in flowing shapeless outfits. Food delivery ads want people to “save a trip to the grocery store,” and an online crafting company thinks it can help you “escape your everyday.” Swimsuit company Summersalt, an Instagram mainstay, has pivoted to loungewear for those coveted “work from home vibes.” Some companies are homing in on people’s fears of catching the coronavirus, with a flood of ads for masks and supplements to “boost the immune system.” And an ad for a laundry detergent asks, “Are there germs on your clothes?”
Some products on Instagram have been invented just for the pandemic. Phone accessory company Peel is promoting its new “Brass Keychain Touch Tool” — a $35 piece of metal you use to press buttons and open doors without using your hands.
At least some of the ads are working.
“[With] all this chaos, the news and how scary this world feels right now, one of the things you can do is treat yourself to feeling as comfortable as possible with what’s on your body,” said Kayti O’Connell Carr, founder and director of Mate the Label, purveyor of environmentally friendly clothes for women.
In March, Mate the Label had one of its best-ever sales months. People working from home rushed to trade their stiff work outfits for the company’s signature jogger pants and pullover tops, which Mate the Label says are soft and made locally. The company also spent the most it ever had on social ads, featuring cheery, bright photos. The company spends 80 percent of its advertising budget on social ads, particularly on Instagram, which it says leads to the most sales.
Unfortunately, the company is running low on inventory. The same time that it’s getting a flood of orders for its products, its Los Angeles factories are shut down to comply with the state stay-at-home orders.
Taylor Lawson, a 29-year-old in New York City, has found that more than a few of her Instagram offers are for sold-out items. The marketing professional checks the app regularly throughout the day and has noticed the increase in ads targeting people working from home, as she is, including an unusual number of ads for tie-dye loungewear and a candle to make your home smell nicer. But she’s not sure whether they’re being shown to her because she is working from home or because of her past shopping habits.
Instagram spokeswoman Stephanie Chan said that the company couldn’t provide any information about ad sales during the pandemic but that people who are seeing more ads from businesses focused on topics such as home fitness, wellness and food delivery may be getting them as a result of their internet browsing behavior, as well as companies’ targeting of a broader audience.
Whatever the reason for Lawson’s Instagram ads, they’re working. “I bought the candle, I bought a pair of shoes. And I bought a waffle maker, actually.”