The Effects of Coronavirus on Advertising: Brand Silence

The Effects of Coronavirus on Advertising: Brand Silence

Written by: Stephanie Bariatti, SMB Media Marketing Consultant 



          We all know the situation with coronavirus is changing by the day, by the hour even, but it has become clear that it’s effects will continue into the near future and possibly longer. 


          Countless large-scale events have been cancelled, postponed or modified, including sporting events, religious gatherings, concerts, festivals and conferences.  


          Schools are closing, workers are telecommuting and people are panic buying.  The shelves are cleared not just of face masks and hand sanitizer anymore, but lots of other things too.    


          Entire countries are being placed on lockdown.  


          The stock market has gone into a tailspin.   


          And as I sit here doing my final proofreading on the evening of March 11th, I find out that travel to Europe from the US is suspended, the NBA is postponing the rest of their season and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have tested positive for the virus.  WHAT is even happening?!?!


          This doesn’t even begin to cover it all and it’s impossible to even attempt to cover it all in one article.  But, every business and industry is being affected in some way, shape or form.  The marketing and advertising worlds are not immune either.   


          Again, there are so many facets to discuss, so I will just focus on one interesting thing I’ve noticed.  There is a high level of sensitivity that is being upheld by brands during this whole thing.  No one wants to appear to be profiting off of this pandemic.  I, myself, was even a little hesitant to write anything about COVID-19 at first, in fear of coming across as cold and uncaring.  At the end of the day, we have to acknowledge that lives are being lost.  But this has just become too big to not talk about.  


         I’m not sure if brands are simply being altruistic or keeping quiet because they have to.  Purell, for instance, has to follow very stringent rules issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are not allowed to say that their products prevent the coronavirus in any form, as the FDA has not seen evidence that this is the case.  As a result, the company has opted to keep its communications to a minimum.  They ask those with questions to privately email them to speak to a scientific representative.   


          Other brands just want to keep out of this whole mess.  They are nervous and fearful that any association with coronavirus will lead to a negative brand image.  Just look at poor Corona beer.  They have been the butt of so many unfortunate jokes and memes.       


          Cleaning brands, like Lysol and Clorox, are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), so they are able to speak about their effectiveness against COVID-19 and other viruses.  Yet, they are doing so in a socially responsible way.  They have decided to take an educational route, using their websites and social media platforms to share guidelines and spread awareness on the importance of cleanliness and disinfecting during this public health crisis.


          However, some may be more quietly trying to get their message across, or trying to do so in a more roundabout way.  I was watching one of the cable news channels a few mornings back and there was a commercial from Dunkin’ that really struck a chord.  You may have seen it.  Titled “Zombie Outbreak,” the ad features a couple sitting on their couch, drinking Dunkin’ coffee, watching breaking news coverage and blissfully ignoring the chaotic herd of zombies banging on their windows.  The narrator says, “Sometimes, you just want to stay in.  Enjoy the great taste of Dunkin' at home.”  Sound familiar?  Now, let’s be clear – this is not the zombie apocalypse – but, the timing of the spot was a little suspect if you ask me.  Upon further research, I found the ad was actually released in December of 2019, but I’m sure scheduling that commercial to run during actual breaking news of an outbreak was no accident.   


          One company that did not shy away from all the hubbub is LUSH.  The UK-headquartered soap store recently invited the public to wash their hands in-store for free. Though posters promoting the initiative throughout its UK stores didn’t directly mention the virus, they offered a contextual prompt to a public scrambling for cleanliness.  In a statement, the company said: "Since we're universally known as 'that soap shop', from Friday 28 February we're using our shop windows to promote the hand-washing guidelines as advised by the NHS in the UK and other public health organisations around the world.  The winter months are always a time when hand hygiene matters because coughs and colds pass around, but the current situation with the spread of the new Coronavirus means that it is more important than ever that people regularly wash their hands and observe best practice.”  

© Provided by The Independent One of Lush's posters (Lush)


          Now, with the virus spreading even more, I don’t know if they are still allowing this, but it was a bold move for an attempt at more foot traffic.  Can’t blame them for trying! 


          My husband said something the other day that really got me thinking.  He said, “When it is almost 2030 and we watch one of those recaps of the decade, we’ll see them talking about how the ‘20s started with the coronavirus pandemic.”  He’s probably right, but will it just be a footnote or will it define the way we live for years to come?  No one knows.  We all need to take a collective deep breath and take things one day at a time. 


          I’m sure there will be plenty more to discuss in the weeks and months to come involving the effects on the ad world.


          Have you come across any interesting or noteworthy marketing tactics in regards to coronavirus?   



Stephanie Bariatti works as a Consultant and Project Manager for SMB Media Consulting.  She has had extensive experience with many facets of advertising and media, having worked for and with creative agencies, production companies and research departments.  She lives in New York with her wonderful husband, three lovable little boys and a snuggly Golden Retriever.