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With the US economy in shambles amid coronavirus, advertising industry reinvents itself

New ads try to strike a balance, resonating with anxious consumers without alienating them.

Screengrab of the Citibank: "We Are Grateful for You" commercial.
Screengrab of the Citibank: "We Are Grateful for You" commercial.Youtube

Remember picnics, and parties, and parades? Remember shopping in stores? For things that weren’t essentials?

The advertising world does. And they’re here for you. Now, more than ever.

A recent Target ad encouraged customers to be "together at home,” while Toyota said its family is “stronger together” and other brands have followed suit — all with sweeping piano music and still photography of friends and gatherings to remind you of better times.

As the US economy has come to a screeching halt amid the coronavirus pandemic, the advertising industry has undergone a massive self-reinvention campaign. Ad dollars are in jeopardy as businesses contemplate their own future. Advertisers are maneuvering through this new landscape cautiously, which means scrapping campaigns, and conceiving and shooting entirely new messages on the fly — all while respecting social distancing guidelines.

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“The compasses that people used to plan advertising are spinning. The game has completely changed,” said Sascha Lock, vice president of media at the AMP agency in Boston. “Fundamentally, people need things that are very different.”

The resulting ads must strike a balance: resonate with consumers who are anxious about the virus and remind them that a brand exists, without alienating them or completely bumming them out.

“Right now, messaging that misses the mark has more risk than ever. And messaging that hits that mark has more impact than ever,” said George Sargent, CEO of Arnold + Havas Media Boston. “People believe COVID-19 will permanently change their lives and the way brands do business, and brands are aiming for a hopeful and reassuring tone.”

Advertising typically hinges on implying certainty: Buy this product and you’ll be better, stronger, smarter.

But there’s so much uncertainty in the world that it’s hard to get that message across, said Bruce Clark, a marketing professor at Northeastern University. This pandemic, as many ads point out, is unprecedented. Companies now have to do the calculus about whether to spend money on campaigns at all, he said, as consumers defer their purchases. But on the other hand, if they pull out, will they cede ground to a competitor?

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“Previous recessions were demand driven, and customers stopped spending,” he said. “Here we have whole sections of the economy that are shut down. ... There’s no point in saying ‘buy now’ if you can’t actually sell.”

And the ad messaging has begun to reflect that.

Take Forcepoint, a security-tech firm. As the US hunkered down, with a swath of the nation working from home on laptops and phones, Forcepoint executives wanted to capitalize on the potential demand for cybersecurity. So as they prepared a new digital campaign, they knew they would have to be creative. Filming a new ad, in the social-distancing era, could be challenging.

The Texas company (owned by Raytheon) teamed up with its Newburyport-based ad agency, Mechanica, to rummage through their old footage. They discovered eerily perfect video of a lonely commuter heading to work in a big city — a big, empty city — and wrote up a new narrative, underscoring how people can work together, even when they’re not physically together.

“We felt this was a really good moment in time to be positive, optimistic, to reassure people,” said Matt Preschern, Forcepoint’s chief marketing officer.

Ad agencies throughout the region have been using a similar playbook, and pulling together entire campaigns in less than three weeks. That’s about how long it took for Allen & Gerritsen, the Boston ad agency, to create a new initiative for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, from conception to execution.

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A&G chief executive Andrew Graff said the agency combined new photography with some stock public footage as well as footage from “local partners” for the “We Are Mighty Massachusetts” campaign that launched last month — all while maintaining appropriate social distancing.

In order to observe social distancing guidelines, Blue Cross Blue Shield's "We Are Mighty Massachusetts" campaign was produced using found footage through local partners, some original photography, and stock public footage.
In order to observe social distancing guidelines, Blue Cross Blue Shield's "We Are Mighty Massachusetts" campaign was produced using found footage through local partners, some original photography, and stock public footage. Allen & Gerritsen

“We’re having to be nimble,” Graff said. “We can’t be out there, shooting big productions.”

Hill Holliday chief executive Karen Kaplan said her ad agency and its longtime clients are often turning to footage left over from shoots that took place before the pandemic, or encouraging user-generated video from smartphones. She doesn’t expect crews to be gathering on a film set again anytime soon.

“We’re all learning that we can work more quickly, we can do more with less, we can figure out how to do great work,” Kaplan said. “We have disrupted ourselves in some really positive ways.”

Kelly Fredrickson, president at ad agency MullenLowe, watched the shift in tone among ads from March to April. The first batch of ads used a lot of still footage, with updates from companies about what they were doing to stay safe. But that’s changed. “We’ve gone from not understanding, to beginning to comprehend," Fredrickson said, "And with that comes sadness.”

The resulting ads over the past several weeks have gotten softer, more thoughtful, more contemplative. It’s such a chorus of emotional support — you might think you wandered into a therapy session — that it has become a trope of sorts: “We’re here for you. We stand with you. You can trust us,” they say.

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“Everybody is doing the same kind of stuff,” said Steve Connelly, who runs Connelly Partners in the South End, referring to the ubiquity of somber piano music. “Piano players are making a fortune.”

To stand out, Connelly said, he’s advising his clients to focus on upbeat messages: “We’re trying to talk about how awesome it’s going to be to get back together. ... Our job is to point at the potential of tomorrow."

Marty Donohue, creative director at the Boston agency Full Contact, said the repetition among ads was understandable, but he expects to see more diversity in the next wave of work. The ads will still show restraint, but also focus on more optimistic themes. “Brands are going to start finding their unique tones and voices,” he said. “The brands that are the first to market when times are tough, if they do it the right way, are the first ones back out of the chute.”

This changing electronic sign in Kenmore Square displayed advertisements with similar themes during the pandemic.
This changing electronic sign in Kenmore Square displayed advertisements with similar themes during the pandemic. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Already, some spots are looking a bit brighter: IBM has been touting how its Watson technology is serving retailers handling online orders and families streaming Zoom calls. Domino’s is serious about safety with touchless delivery. Even Match has been promoting dating while distancing for the truest of optimists among us.

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Many clients are pivoting in their approach to business as well, something that will be reflected in their advertising. Don Martelli, chief operating officer at the Belfort Group, said architectural firms should focus more on redesigning interiors aimed at keeping workers separate, while universities should focus on promoting enrollment in ways that don’t rely on campus visits and in-person events.

Lisa Martinelli, director of brand marketing strategy at Stop & Shop, said the company immediately changed its messaging at the first sign of shutdowns, moving away from promotional campaigns to a more somber, supportive tone. But the company decided to change its approach, she said, after learning that shoppers were increasingly afraid to visit the stores.

Its latest round of ads features customers asking other shoppers to wear masks to help everyone stay safe. Reacting to consumer sentiment means keeping a “constant pulse on your customers and reaching them in relevant ways quickly,” she said.

As the shutdown stretches on, overall ad spending has plunged: Figures tracked by Kantar indicate that spending on 30-second TV spots has fallen by double-digit percentages for at least five weeks since the pandemic hit the US. However, there are some signs of growth in certain categories, such as pharmaceuticals, insurance, and household products. Meanwhile, travel spending has all but completely dried up, and retail and automotive sectors have also taken a hit.

“We’re not seeing a lot of ads for vacations and Disney World right now,” said Mark O’Toole, who oversees marketing firm Mower’s Newton office. Instead, it’s “more traditional items ... food items, things we can get delivered."

Still, many clients recognize the importance of marketing during the pandemic, particularly given how easily consumers’ loyalty can be won or lost at this time.

“Brands are thinking about the reality that a lost customer today is potentially a lost customer forever,” said Fredrickson of MullenLowe.

One silver lining in all this: Companies have become more willing to innovate on the fly, out of necessity. Fredrickson points to the decision to offer curbside pickup. Many retailers would likely conduct, say, nine months of market testing, possibly with pilots in one or two stores, before rolling out such a dramatic change. During the pandemic, changes like this have happened overnight.

“Brand experimenting is never going to go back to the way it used to be,” Fredrickson said. “That’s a fundamental shift.”


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos. Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.