Don’t Mention The Virus! Why Covid Ads Were Christmas Turkeys

Advertisers going into Christmas 2020 had a tricky choice to make. This wouldn’t be an ordinary Christmas for customers or retailers. But should their Christmas adverts acknowledge that – and how?

Back in the Spring, when the pandemic first pushed the UK and US markets into lockdown, we collected every Covid-19 related advert we could find from March to June. We found three important findings:

  1. The average Star rating (our metric predicting an ad’s potential to amplify spend and create long-term growth) was higher for Covid ads than for ordinary ads. Rather than being turned off by brands talking about the pandemic, people responded well and liked the reassurance and lift familiar brands could provide.
  2. However, in terms of Fluency – the extent to which people can quickly identify a brand from its ads – Covid-19 ads saw a drop. While they might have made people feel good, too many of them did so in generic ways which lost any distinctiveness the brand’s marketing usually has.
  1. And we found that while people responded well to new Covid-themed advertising, brands’ pre-Covid advertising still worked. We tested 100 pre-pandemic ads again and discovered no meaningful shift in emotional response overall.#

So what does this mean for Christmas advertising? When Covid was new, people liked the fact that brands were acknowledging it and reassuring them during a scary and difficult time. But they certainly weren’t demanding that brands tackle the issue, or punishing them for not doing so. With Covid no longer new, was there a need to revisit it at Christmas?

Some prominent brands – Amazon foremost among them – clearly felt there was. Others – like Aldi, owners of Kevin The Carrot – chose to ignore it. And many – like John Lewis – made ads which were a little different in tone than before, but had no explicit mention of coronavirus.

Because we test every Christmas ad we find each year, we are uniquely placed to find out which approach worked best. We took brands who had advertised in 2019 and 2020, and looked at their shift in Star ratings year-on-year. Then we split them into those brands which had explicitly referenced Covid-19 in their 2020 ads, and those which had ignored the pandemic.

The results were stark. Among the brands which didn’t mention Covid, we saw a modest average rise in Star Ratings, of 0.2 Stars – broadly in line with a general rise we’ve seen this year in response to Christmas ads.

But among the brands which did mention Covid, we saw a fall of 1-Star on average – a dramatic shift on a 5-point scale. Not one single brand who referenced the pandemic scored higher this year than last.

It’s easy to see why Covid was such a turn-off for viewers. 9 months into the pandemic, it’s not a new story, and everyone’s become familiar with masks, video calls, social distancing, and lockdowns. Advertisers gain nothing by reminding people of it – especially at a time they want to be feeling cheerful. Entertainment and escapism, not attempts at empathy, are what viewers wanted this Christmas.

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