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Advertisers are trying to adapt to COVID-19

Sisters watch television on March 26

Advertisers are pivoting to ads that capture the moment with a quiet, contemplative tone that's focused on family. Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

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The great messaging race has begun. It started with a frantic rush to pull TV ads that may now make viewers cringe.

In one ad for Apple’s AirPods, a woman is walking the streets of New York City. It’s cramped and overwhelming. She puts in her AirPods and, poof! Manhattan’s streets are empty.

Or there’s a KFC ad, set to Chopin, in which the camera zooms in on people eating fried chicken, licking their fingers and their partners’ fingers.

Television advertising is attempting to make a switch from consumerism to community. Pulling ads is one thing, but it’s hard to shoot a compelling new TV commercial under quarantine.

“We’re getting a lot of calls from clients asking us: ‘Well, what is anyone else doing?'” said Jim Nail, marketing analyst at Forrester. “Just because there’s never been an experience like this that you can reach back to or draw on to give you any guidance.”

Nail said some companies are replaying old ads, while others are making new ones with unused material from previous shoots. They’re pivoting to ads that capture the moment with a tone that’s quiet, contemplative and focused on family.

An AT&T ad that started airing in late March shuffles through photos of empty streets and shuttered storefronts. The voiceover says: “These days, it’s anything but business as usual. That’s why working together is more important than ever.”

Companies that can get creative in this chaos will have an audience: Nielsen data shows that when people are forced to stay home, they watch about 60% more content than usual. 

“It’s easier to get the eyeballs,” said Edward Russell, a professor of advertising at Syracuse University, adding that the brands that spend now may fare better during economic downturn. “At the same time, you have to take into account the state that people are in, and what you can do to lessen that and comfort them in some way.”

Comfort in uncertain times can come with a familiar theme: red, white and blue. “After 9/11 we saw very pro-American, let’s-all-get-together kinds of advertising,” said Russell.

After September 11, General Motors put out a series of ads called “Keep America Rolling.” They’re slices of classic Americana. One is shot as if you’re the driver, rolling through what looks like middle America.

Keep America Rolling from Dave Moore on Vimeo.

TV ads like this tell us a lot about the moment we’re living in, emotionally and economically. Think back to the Superbowl in February when the market was good, unemployment was rock bottom and we still watched live sports. Commercials were energetic, funny and even snarky. It’s likely we won’t see ads like that for a while.

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