Marketing in the Time of COVID-19 Part Two: Advertising During the First Reopening

Photo credit: Ivan Samkov on

In the last post, I focused on what advertising worked best for companies as the United States shutdown the country as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As I mentioned, the COVID-19 threat is still ongoing. However, the mood of the country has started to change, as has the tone of the media. Furthermore, many in the government are trying to instill a sense of calm and encourage people to get back out there.

Again, we won’t know whether this is right or wrong until we see what happens in the next few months.

With this mind, brands should be monitoring public sentiment and adjust their advertising to fit the needs of their current and potential customers as time goes on and the coronavirus threat level increases or decreases.

This post is being written to help point out some of the things to consider as brands try to figure out what is the best way to communicate with customers in the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Note: This post does not address the events that occurred on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis. A future post might cover the way brands addressed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the riots that occurred as a result.

The Public’s Thoughts on Advertising During COVID-19

As I pointed out in the last post, now is not the time to stop advertising.

In fact, several studies have shown that consumers thought that businesses should continue to advertise even during the early days of the pandemic. It’s also interesting to point out that some consumers think ads bring a sense of normality to their day.

That said, the messaging used makes a difference. As time goes on, the messaging that works with consumers will change.

After a few months of being told to stay at home to level the curve, many people are ready to get back out there and live their lives again.

That means that brands might be able to start testing normal messaging. However, don’t rush it, as we are not in the clear yet and ignoring the threats and pressures that consumers face could backfire.

As I will highlight later, messaging related to the pandemic can still work.

However, brands need to avoid being cliché, as consumers have already taken to social media to point out the similarity of many of the commercials that brands created during the early days of the pandemic.

Also, it is important to remember that where the ad is shown seems to make a difference.

What Is Working for Online Video Advertising

As more people turned to the Internet to stay connected given the shelter in place orders that were enacted in many states in recent months, it is not surprising that businesses chose to continue to advertise online. In fact, YouTube ad revenue grew 33% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2020.

It is interesting to point out that most of the ads on YouTube did not address the pandemic directly.

In an article posted on CNBC on May 20, 2020, Tara Walpert Levy, VP of agency and media solutions at Google and YouTube, is quoted as saying, “80% of the ads that we saw in April were not Covid-related; they were straight-up ads.”

She also went to say that the ads that address the pandemic did not outperform regular ads on the site.

“She said the company looked at factors like what people watched and how they engaged, as well as brand metrics like consideration or brand performance,” the author of the article writes. “Suprisingly, YouTube found that COVID-specific ads performed no better or worse than regular ads.”

However, that doesn’t mean that the ads on YouTube weren’t different than the ads brands made before the pandemic.

“Although advertisers are not making many Covid-specific ads for YouTube, they’ve still tailored their messages for the moment – restaurants have pivoted to advertising about delivery, while retailers are highlighting curbside pickup, for instance,” the author of the article writes.

Furthermore, many brands have been forced to scale down production as a result of the pandemic.

“We’re seeing, by necessity, a lot more scrappy production,” Walpert Levy is quoted as saying. “You know that’s something brands have historically worried a lot about, in terms of how that would affect perception or results… Those have performed as strongly or better than many of the other ads.”

In particular, she states that the Mint Mobile ad featuring Ryan Reynolds “couldn’t be more scrappy.” It was also among the highest performing ads on YouTube at the time the article was written.

More Advice from Ace Metrix

How can the results from Google and YouTube be correct when Ace Metrix found that ads with COVID-19 messaging were outperforming other ads early on?

The answer could be partially explained by where the ads are found. The timing of the ads could also be an issue. Futhermore, it might be a result of what ads are classified as COVID-19 advertising.

Walpert Levy did mention that many businesses tailored their non-Covid-specific ads to the moment by focusing on delivery and curbside pickup. That is similar to the advice Ace Metrix gave when they recommended focusing on the benefit being met or the problem being solved.

Ace Metrix continues to recommend that brands could benefit by creating ads with messaging that addresses the pandemic.

As a recent post on the Ace Metrix blog points out, although the average Ace score is decreasing, ads that address the COVID-19 pandemic still continue to outperform non-COVID-specific ads. The scores were compared to a non-COVID-19 norm that included ads that ran from March 11 to May 13.

This indicates that the advice that they gave earlier in the year is still valid in many cases. However, they do suggest that brands be creative so that they don’t get lost in a sea of sameness.

As the author of the May 15th blog posts points out, “Even though only a small portion of viewers explicitly called out a sense of sameness among some ads, there are no signs that gen pop consumers are worn out from COVID-19 messaging. Instead, brands approaching the topic need to create fresh, innovative, and original work to stand out among the crowd. Let’s not forget that was the case for every ad before the pandemic. On top of that, there are still plenty of ads not talking about it. Only 42% of those we’ve tested since March 13th address it in some manner.”

It should be pointed out that they did warn that there is a slight uptick in the number of people who think that some COVID-19 ads are exploiting the situation. That could be a problem for brands and is something to watch.

In a world where people have a voice on social media, an insincere ad could be a focus of a viral YouTube video that could do damage to the brand.

Luckily, the parody video below was about all car advertising during COVID-19, not about a specific brand.

But, that might not be the case next time.

Video credit: HRPoodersmith on YouTube.

If you get a chance, I would suggest reading the whole post on the Ace Metrix blog for additional recommendations.

I would also suggest checking out their advice about what is working for brands with non-COVID-19 specific messaging in their advertising. This information was included in their May 28th post.

Chad Thiele

Chad Thiele

I am a marketing analyst and strategist. I earned my master's degree from West Virginia University in Integrated Marketing Communications in 2023. I also hold a bachelor's degree from UW-Madison in Sociology with a Concentration in Analysis and Research, and I completed the Mobile Marketing Professional Certificate Program from Auburn University in 2015.