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Sara’s Diary, Day 42 without baseball: Advertising in the age of coronavirus

You can’t go to most stores but they are still trying to sell you anything they can

New York City Continues To Idle During Coronavirus Shutdown
Ads on the billboards in Times Square on April 20.
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

Non-essential businesses remain closed in the vast majority of the country although some states are opening outdoor recreation areas. A few states including Georgia and Florida plan on opening non-essential businesses as quickly as tomorrow, as you can see from this map created by the International Business Times:

Map of states and what is being reopened

But just because businesses are closed doesn’t mean they aren’t still trying to sell you something. Advertising has adapted quickly to the pandemic landscape and I wanted to take a minute looking at the different strategies they are using to attract your attention, good will and dollars.

Demonstrating good will

Some companies are actually changing how they do business with their customers. The two most prominent examples of this I’ve seen of this type of ad are from the auto insurance companies like State Farm and Liberty Mutual who are issuing refunds to their customers based on the decreased traffic accidents from the dropoff in people driving.

As jobless numbers continue to soar, this is a company clearly meeting a need of its customers by literally refunding their money. However, in a clever twist it also shows State Farm employees alone, working from home, communicating virtually just like the rest of us.

Virtue signaling

Just shy of taking tangible actions to help current customers and much more common are ads that engage in virtue signalling. Companies want you to know that they understand people need to stay home to be safe right now and they want to encourage you to do it. There isn’t even a hint of a car or an attempt to sell you one in this social distancing ad from Volkswagen:

I mean, let’s be clear - most people are not going to buy cars right now, but Volkswagon is hoping that you’ll remember they were socially responsible in a few years when the economy is better and you do need a car.

Telegraphing safety

Restaurants have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic as they were forced to close their on-site operations and transition to only takeout and delivery. They have also faced concerns about food safety as consumers worry the novel coronavirus could be passed on packaging or incidental contact with drivers. This ad from Papa John’s is everywhere right now and wants to make it very clear - the pizza you order from them is safe to eat:

Pulling at your heartstrings & offering comfort

There are quite a few products you can still buy, you just can’t enjoy them the way you are used to in non-pandemic times. Take Guinness, which likely took a hit on St. Patrick’s day as parades were cancelled and at least some people stayed home. This ad highlights way to enjoy Guinness and your friends from a safe social distance while offering assurances that the brewery isn’t going anywhere:

Humans are remarkably adaptable and I’ve been struck by the thousands of small ways pandemic life is reflected back at me on a daily basis. Ads that weren’t edited are a bit jarring now and hit me in ways that I couldn’t have predicted in February. Even commercial breaks are shifting as we all adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic.