Advertising after coronavirus must rediscover human instincts
A view from Orlando Wood

Advertising after coronavirus must rediscover human instincts

What will the long-term impact of coronavirus be on advertising creativity?

At the end of a month that changed the world, taking stock might seem premature. We’re still only at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, after all. But we’re already seeing the short-term impact of the crisis on creativity. 

By the end of March, a rash of brands were launching ads that addressed the new situation in which we find ourselves. Many had similar instincts. Advertisers as diverse as Guinness, Toyota and AT&T put out commercials created rapidly and using existing footage (the virus makes shooting ads irresponsible, if not impossible) and voiceovers that sought to empathise with the shell-shocked public. 

System1’s weekly mood tracker has found that levels of fear and sadness have risen in populations across all markets, so ads seeking to reassure, which reference protection and control, are an understandable early response – it’s what advertisers might do after any national disaster. But it doesn’t address the bigger question: what will the long-term impact of coronavirus be on advertising creativity?

It’s tempting to imagine things will return to normal once restrictions on work and travel are lifted and the economy starts to recover. But will they? Shifts in culture and the way that societies attend to the world have taken place in the wake of pandemics of the past. Great plagues formed the backdrop for the Renaissance and Baroque eras – periods of heightened empathy in culture, music and art, an appreciation of mixed emotions, a greater awareness of those around us, and our time and place in the world.

The virus has led people to re-evaluate ways of working and life priorities, brought a different type of attention to bear on the world and, in so doing, could lay bare the inadequacy of certain styles of advertising. 

In a nutshell, recent advertising has geared too much towards the left brain. Recent study of the different roles of the left and right brain has shown that the two hemispheres don’t do different things; rather, they do things differently and pay attention to the world in different ways.

Over the past 20 years, as outlined in Lemon (IPA, 2019), we’ve seen popular culture tilt towards a more "left-brained" style of attention – narrow and goal-oriented, competitive, rhythmic and repetitious. Advertising has been carried along in this shift and we’ve seen a style of advertising that flattens, abstracts people, focuses on things, downplays human interaction, humour, metaphor and the sense of living in a certain place, time and culture. This left-brained mode of advertising is prevalent, but as Lemon demonstrates, it has a negative impact on its ability to connect with audiences – in other words, its effectiveness.

But the coronavirus crisis demands of us a different kind of attention – a right-brained focus, which is alert to the threat, looks at the bigger picture, isn’t blindly optimistic and understands the relationships between people and things. It is resulting in empathy, acts of altruism and spontaneity, and even humour. These are things of the right brain. As UK prime minister Boris Johnson put it from his isolation bunker: there is such a thing as society.

The advertising that will resonate during and after the crisis will acknowledge this, using local and cultural references to root itself in society and our history. Ads that feature living characters, betweenness, humour and empathy will connect better. Advertising will need to embrace people’s need for entertainment and escapism in difficult times. It will look very little like the increasingly ineffective, self-conscious and didactic advertising of the 2010s.

We’re already seeing some evidence of this. As an experiment, we tested 100 ads that first aired in January and February this year from our comprehensive Test Your Ad database to get an idea of what kind of work was resonating more (or less) in the era of coronavirus. The overall picture showed that ads were connecting just as well today as they did before, but there were some fascinating patterns at the fringes.

Generally, ads that are performing less well today are more self-conscious, product- and message-driven (left brain). They include Samsung’s Galaxy S20 ad, which is highly rhythmic, and Citroën’s "Disconnect more often" crossover SUV ad.

Those that are performing slightly better feature more human connection and have a clear sense of time and (historical) place (right brain). Doritos’ Cool Ranch Super Bowl ad scores even better now than it did in February and Amazon’s "What do you think people did before Alexa?" has also seen an improvement. 

The changes coronavirus will make across our society are hard to predict. But in advertising, at least, it feels like an opportunity to change course and rediscover our right-brained, human instincts. In tough times, our audiences will thank us for it.

Orlando Wood is chief innovation officer at System1
Picture: Getty Images