The raft of ads reacting to COVID-19 reflects how shocks can cause knee-jerk responses rather than creative answers to each brand's individual challenge in a time of collective difficulty, argues Faris Yakob.

There is essentially only one creative thesis in advertising (and beyond): stand out. At the brand level this is called differentiation or distinctiveness, an ongoing argument that is at once strategic, semantic,and exemplifies the vanity of small differences. At the advertising level this is called disruption, zagging, bravery … 

This is because of how our attention system works. Though we are attuned to look for patterns, we habituate quickly. Once a pattern is established we learn to ignore it, especially when it happens at high volume or frequency. Consider how often you forget the substance of your commute and how different that experience (or lack thereof) is now, which is likely making it more memorable in the short term. We will inevitably get used to it. 

The cycle continues with trends in culture and creativity bouncing off each other. As Susan Sontag once said, “In the modern era, each new style, unless frankly anachronistic, has come on the scene as an anti-style.” Culture and its creative expressions are pendula, swinging to and fro, as what is mainstream becomes boring and thus new forms emerge to stand out. Creativity is being non-obvious for impact. 

Paradoxically, as I touched upon in the tensegrity piece, other disciplines of the agency have different approaches. Strategically, it’s not a good idea to always ‘not do what everyone else does’. Oftentimes, if there are a lot of brands behaving similarly in a category, it would make sense to understand why other brands are doing that because there might be a good reason. 

There is also evidence that more creative advertising isn’t a force multiplier in all categories. One study across more than 500 commercials in Germany suggested that, for example, advertising that was gauged ‘very creative' by peers and consumers was less commercially effective for toothpaste brands than ‘less creative’ ads. The instincts of creativity must be informed by strategy. 

When we act in complex competitive situations, we do so individually. Each brand and agency has their own teams working in a context without useful historical precedent, so no one knows what to do. We are quite good at imagining how we will respond to situations, but struggle to extrapolate what everyone else will be doing at the same time -- and how that in turn changes the context in which our actions unfold and ideas live, because it creates complexity. 

Once the crisis coalesced into lockdown, brand teams felt they had to respond and all faced the same uncertainty. Thus a knee-jerk reaction, using the easiest and fastest channels at their disposal to send out a message of solidarity, some version of the “In these troubled times we are all apart but in this together and…” email. Consumers were suddenly barraged with emails from every brand they have ever interacted with that said the same thing, rendering them all invisible at best and annoying at worst. 

Then, the same thing happened on television, with every ad produced under difficult conditions trying to strike the right solemn but hopeful/helpful tone, which all ended up being very similar. Empty streets, video calls, people at home on iPhones. So much so that someone made a mash-up video of them all, highlighting such. 

They are all perhaps individually doing the right thing, but in competitive situations that can be the wrong thing. Everything is tricky and highly emotionally charged. Brands should be focussed on protecting their employees. Some bought media had to be used differently and fast. Perhaps now isn’t the time to be ruthlessly focused on competition, but regardless some brands have stepped up with something more interesting in the sea of sameness. 

Nike moved quickly with what seems to be the most compelling combination. Where a brand has relevant product, a compelling message and creative idea, and a brand action that supports the community, the advertising feels less tokenistic and more strategically robust. The “Play inside, play for the world.” campaign promoted a community message and their Nike Training Club simultaneously, and its foundation is donating $15 million to various related causes. Burger King, known for rapid, culturally salient work, launched ‘Couch Potatriat’ made from previously filmed footage, in which the sofa launches its inhabitants into standing salutes because they are patriotically staying at home during the crisis, while offering free delivery and donations to nurses. 

Many brands will have solutions that are relevant and consumed whilst we stay at home. Channel 4 broke the tone with their “important safety announcement for your arse” in which they suggest you stay on the sofa and watch tv, “no ifs, only butts”. Beyond the obvious televisual services, IKEA UK asked its customers to “conquer the great indoors”, demonstrating the versatility of a toilet seat that may also serve as “reading chair” and “secret hideout” nowadays. Uber deserves credit for doing that which is rarely done, advertising explicitly to ask people not to use their service. Sometimes a good creative idea is enough, as with Nationwide who commissioned poets to write to themselves in six months time and provide reassurance and comfort, with a small call to action about the brand’s community actions. Budwesier repurposing their classic Wassup ad with a slight tweak to the voiceover shows how archival footage can still be fresh and relevant. 

We watched live broadcast television for real time research and couldn’t tell, even after repeat viewings, which was the Samsung ad, the Apple ad, or innumerable other ads. I think one was for cotton, the fibrous plant, which expressed its concern. Maybe I hallucinated it.

Seeing television commercials out of context is misleading since they are consumed in tranches and at frequency. We are going to be apart, together for some time, but need no more of those ads from purveyors of snacks and sugar water. Once we have gotten over the seemingly ongoing shock, the industry will continue to apply its remarkable ingenuity to how we work and we will begin to see more differentiation. Or distinctiveness.