COVID-19 has not changed consumer attitudes to advertising

With many brands worried about whether they should continue to advertise during COVID-19, what do consumers think?
03 April 2020
daren poole

Senior Director, Creative Domain

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This post was written based on data available to 26 March 2020. We will continue to update our point of view based on any emerging data.

As the number of global coronavirus cases increases and stricter social distancing and lockdown regulations are put into place, brands continue to ask whether they should continue to advertise. Previously, we said that for most brands, spending behind the right creative will put the brand in a stronger position post-crisis than brands that don’t spend. New research adds the voice of the people: they don’t expect brands to stop advertising and are responding to ads in a very similar way to before the crisis.

Advertising should continue

According to Kantar’s COVID-19 Barometer, only 8% of people believe that companies should stop advertising. This is supported in studies we conducted to understand how people are responding to advertising, with only 6% of UK and US respondents saying that they don’t think it’s appropriate for brands to be advertising at the moment. Sixty-four percent say it’s OK for brands to advertise and 19% believe that they only believe it’s appropriate for some brands to advertise.

Asked why they believe that, it’s clear that marketers may be more concerned about causing offence than consumers. Those that say it’s appropriate for brands to be advertising say that life and the economy go on, there is still demand for products and services, so brands need to advertise. And many say that in a constant news cycle about coronavirus, advertising provides a sense of normality, or even distraction and escape. Those that believe that only some brands should be advertising don’t want to see content about products that people can’t buy or use because of shortage or about services that they are currently not allowed to use.

Consumer response to specific ads has changed very little

Last week, we re-tested ten TV and digital ads, from five markets, that we had tested prior to the crisis, to identify if people’s concerns about COVID-19 and the economy are affecting how they respond to advertising.

On 95% of Link Now’s measures, the response to questions is unchanged from previously. At an aggregate level, while we see some small declines on headline measures of short and long-term advertising performance, these are not significant, and most importantly, the recommendations from studies for individual ads would not change from those given originally.

Individual cases provide guidelines for creative content during the crisis.

  • The response to an ad for anti-bacterial wipes improved significantly, reflecting the need for heightened levels of hygiene. When 75% of people believe that companies should not exploit coronavirus, this ad is seen as helpful because the messaging is in line with previous ads and therefore authentic. It doesn’t make reference to COVID-19 and it doesn’t need to: people can make that connection themselves.
  • An Aldi Easter egg ad, that uses gentle humour, is very well received. While 40% of people don’t feel that advertising should use humour now, they respond well to this ad, with the light-hearted tone providing a break from the news. Similarly, a Busch beer ad that uses dry humour is as well received today as when originally tested.
  • There is no evidence that scenes of people not social distancing impacts on response. One ad tested for an entertainment brand features scenes of mass gatherings and does not drive negativity.
  • Similarly, an ad for TV network Canal+ tested in locked-down France that shows more vulnerable elderly people in outdoor situations is not negatively received; the humour was as appreciated as when originally first tested. These cases point to people wanting to suspend reality when seeing advertising, just as they will be doing when they watch the programmes that ads appear in.

Implications for marketers

  • In most cases, advertisers can and should continue to advertise. Seeing ads helps consumers escape mentally from the crisis and can point them to products and services to help them during unusual times, or simply provided comfort and support.
  • Content doesn’t need to specifically reference coronavirus as people are all too aware of the situation. At the same time, it shouldn’t exploit it.
  • People don’t seem to be sensitive to seeing scenes that show banned or restricted behaviours. Similarly, the use of appropriate humour seems to be acceptable. However, testing is recommended to avoid any possible backlash that could damage the brand.
  • People’s response to ads in Link hasn’t changed with the crisis, so brands can test ads with confidence. At a time when many media budgets have been reduced, so ROI is more important than ever, this small investment can ensure that advertising lands as intended, delivering short-term sales and long-term equity for the brand.
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The leading syndicated study on how COVID-19 is influencing consumer behaviour, attitudes and expectations, covering over 60 markets.
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