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Ad agencies launch a new campaign in the coronavirus war

As the pandemic has hit home, advertisers are tweaking their messages and their spending

Inspira Health's "Blue Hearts for Heroes" campaign created by Brownstein Group.
Inspira Health's "Blue Hearts for Heroes" campaign created by Brownstein Group.Read moreInspira Health

While competitors hoping to revitalize pandemic-stricken businesses were offering traditional incentives such as restaurant coupons, a Delaware County heating and cooling firm sold itself with ads that resembled safety tutorials.

Stuck-at-home customers were told by the chief executive of Oliver Heating & Cooling that their well-being was his company’s primary concern. Workers who entered their residences, he vowed, would have their shoes sheathed, their hands gloved, and their faces masked before they touched an air-conditioning unit. All part of Oliver’s $69.95 spring tune-up special.

“Right now, if I’m letting someone into my home, I don’t care about restaurants,” said David Neff, the president of Neff, the Philadelphia agency that created the spot. “I just want to make sure my family is safe.”

Oliver’s ad is just one example of how, almost overnight, the COVID-19 outbreak has transformed advertising. As the number of shuttered manufacturers and idled workers has skyrocketed, the demand for conventional ads, those that, as humorist Will Rogers once noted, “convince people to spend money they don’t have for things they don’t need,” has dissipated.

“Companies have to be thoughtful and considerate,” Neff said. “They have to make sure consumers understand they’re looking out for their best interests, that they understand CDC guidelines and follow them. Before you even talk about what you want them to buy, you’ve got to get that messaging out.”

At large Philadelphia agencies such as Neff, Brownstein Group and Sagefrog Marketing Group, the bulk of work now is forging ads for the age of coronavirus, ads that mimic public-service announcements and emphasize safety, empathy and such ideals as unity and compassion.

“If companies don’t want to be perceived as tone deaf, they’ve got to create this new kind of messaging,” Neff said.

» FAQ: Your coronavirus questions, answered.

A survey of 200 Association of National Advertisers members found that since mid-March, 92% had altered their brand-messaging, half of them “substantially.” Many have cut back their ad spending significantly.

Bucking that trend has been Proctor & Gamble, the nation’s biggest advertiser and a company that’s seen significant boosts in sales of its cleaning and health-related products during the outbreak. It has not only changed its ad campaigns but also increased them.

"This is not a time to retrench,” Jon Moeller, P&G’s chief financial officer, told the advertising website the Drum. “And really that’s all in service to our consumers and service to our retail partners, and – we believe – in service to our society.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s tourism economy has already lost $1 billion because of coronavirus — and faces a long road back

One recent Ford TV ad never mentioned a car. Instead, with somber music in the background, the spot displayed black-and-white footage of the company’s World War II production efforts. It ended with the words “Built for America” on a black screen. The pitch was less abstract in a new Hyundai commercial. Amid sunny family scenes, a narrator vowed that the car company would cut payments for up to six months for any buyer who lost a job due to COVID-19. And Popeye’s, the fried-chicken chain, stripped down its ad even further, down to a simple “We’re Open.”

These ads are being fashioned quickly and sometimes on the cheap with agencies utilizing stock footage or a talking head instead of investing in elaborate and costly production values. They’re frequently low-key and inspirational, pushing the product into the shadows while they espouse a “we’re all in this together” sentiment or outline a business’ safety procedures.

Unsurprisingly, with 33 million Americans filing for unemployment over the last seven weeks, the same agencies busy crafting these new campaigns are also taking a hit.

Advertising is down across the board, especially among auto-related businesses, which comprise a significant portion of all agencies clients. Neff has had to reduce his staff from 23 to 18.

“There are significantly less advertisers actively promoting their goods and services on television and radio than there’s ever been,” Neff said. “They’re telling us, `Hey, I still want my brand to be visible but I want to spend a lot less money than normally.’”

» READ MORE: America hasn’t seen unemployment rise this sharply since 1948 — and experts say it’s not over yet

Mark Schmukler, Sagefrog’s CEO and founder, said it was difficult for companies that have laid off 40% of their workforce to justify “giving money to Google” for advertising.

“Still, in some ways, it’s a very interesting time for agencies,” said Schmukler. “We’re helping clients adjust their message to make it consistent with where the world is at right now.”

The world’s new reality hasn’t only stifled some areas of agency business and accelerated others, it’s also altered longstanding industry paradigms.

“Marketing is usually about the four P’s: product, price, promotion and place,” said Erin Allsman, managing director at Brownstein. “Now we’ve shifted to the four C’s: caution, compassion, concern and change.”

» READ MORE: Schools brace for budget cuts as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on the economy

Normally heavy spending on advertising and marketing has plummeted. An Interactive Advertising Bureau survey found that billboard spending was down 51% in March and April, radio down 45%, print down 43% and TV down 41%.

“Basically all categories are down in a big way,” Neff said. “But if you’re a local, national or regional brand, you can get more for the money now than probably any time in my lifetime. It’s a buyers’ market.”

Some companies have helped agencies fill the void. One Sagefrog client, ILC Dover, for example, manufactures personal protective equipment, masks and the like. “They’re going crazy,” said Schmukler of the Delaware firm. “They can’t make it fast enough.”

Cleaning firms, insurers, supermarkets and health-care companies also have ramped up advertising, some to push product, some merely to offer thanks.

Brownstein created an elaborate Blue Hearts for Heroes campaign for Inspira Health, in which the South Jersey hospital network urged the public to place blue hearts in windows to thank overtaxed health-care workers.

» READ MORE: Philly health-care workers are giving their all treating COVID patients. Where’s the love from their city?

If feel-good ads like that were the ad industry’s first response to the pandemic, the second wave has arrived with safety-first efforts such as Oliver’s and those that offer direct support for anxious customers.

“Consumers needed to hear supportive messages a month ago when our current situation arrived as a global shock,” said an in-house article on Brownstein’s website. “Now, as the effects of this global economic shutdown are becoming apparent, consumers are looking for the direct help and resources that brands can offer.”

No matter how thoughtfully businesses address the coronavirus’ impact, if they hope to emerge on a stable financial footing when it’s over, they’re going to need customers.

“A brand that’s going to come out of this successfully has demonstrated, or is in the process of demonstrating, what they’ve done to change and adjust either their product, their pricing model, their delivery mechanism or their payment terms,” said Allsman. “People’s circumstances have changed. The brands have to respond.”

» READ MORE: Amtrak to require masks to protect against coronavirus

Whatever the response, the experts said, it has to be carefully crafted and placed. No company wants to see itself associated with the pandemic’s deadly toll.

Norwegian Cruise Lines learned that early in the outbreak when one of its ads, with an upbeat message, followed a CNN story on cruise-ship passengers stranded by the disease. After criticism, it pulled the commercial.

“You don’t want to be tone-deaf,” Neff said. “You want to address what’s going on and respect it. That’s not to say that at some point humor can’t factor into the mix. But now is definitely not the time.”

When the disease and its aftershocks ebb, these same advertising agencies expect to help businesses make their way through what figures to be a drastically different landscape.

“That’s where we’re doing most of our work now, the plan forward,” said Allsman. “We’re calling it the ‘path to a new normal.’ We’re mapping out for clients what’s changed, what’s shifted in terms of consumer behavior. We’re figuring out how each brand needs to make changes, not just to communications but in some cases to their business models.”