Crisis Advertising

Crisis Advertising: The Good, The Bad, and The Poorly Timed

Let’s go back a few weeks, shall we?

It’s mid-pandemic and you log onto your computer, take a deep breath, and open your inbox.
“During these unfortunate times…”
“We know the current situation is uncertain and unprecedented.”
“We’re here FOR YOU.”

There’s a good chance you’ve come across many of these messages ­– both from brands you love and frequent and from brands you haven’t interacted with since the Bush administration. But with coronavirus marketing successes and failures all around us, there’s a lot we can learn from this strange situation. The Partnership is diving in – so join us as we explore Crisis Advertising: The Good, The Bad, and The Poorly Timed.

The Good

We’re kicking off the good with a round of applause to the brands and companies who have opted to help the world instead of sell to the world.

As personal protective equipment becomes more and more central to our lives, fashion brands such as Gucci, Balenciaga, and Yves Saint Laurent have taken up manufacturing and distributing N95 face masks; Kylie Jenner Cosmetics and Tito’s Handmade Vodka used their facilities and resources to produce mass amounts of hand sanitizer, and the MLB teamed up with sports apparel maker Fanatics to make gowns and masks for first responders and medical staff.

Taking a human approach sets these players apart from those bombarding our inboxes, and their kindness throughout this crisis will not be soon forgotten.

More good news in the realm of positive crisis advertising? Well, you’re in luck.

Here’s a spot that we believe got it just right: A St. Patrick’s Day Message From Guinness. If you haven’t seen this wholesome St. Patrick’s Day narrative just yet, we recommend giving it a watch. It’s an encouraging spot that reminds us that even though this year feels a bit strange and separated, “we will march again.” Additionally, Guinness has committed $500,000 through the Guinness Gives Back Fund to help communities in need throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Another company doing things right? Ford.

Not only was Ford among the first to publicly discuss the impact of the coronavirus in its ads such as the March 16th Built to Lend a Hand and the Built for Right Now spots, Ford is also offering financial relief to customers who are struggling to make payments on a newly purchased car due to COVID-19.

Being a company or brand that takes care of people – whether they are employees, customers, or first responders – will prove to be far more valuable than being a company or brand who ran a poorly thought-out “coronavirus sale.”

Here’s one more example of some good being done in the world of coronavirus marketing –The Great Georgia Give. In fact, the Partnership is proud to have pioneered it.

The Great Georgia Give is a four-week philanthropic initiative that features Georgia dairy farmers, Dairy Farmers of America, Kroger, Georgia Department of Agriculture and Centennial Farms Dairy. In total, over 24,000 half-gallons of milk are being donated across the great state of Georgia – especially to our healthcare workers and first responders who have selflessly cared for the lives of others throughout this pandemic. Nourishing those in need with safe, wholesome, locally sourced milk is a great way to generate inspirational stories by supporting the very communities in which we live, work, and thrive.

The good initiatives are the ones that make us feel whole even when we’re separated from loved ones. They are the ones that make us think and reflect even after we’ve spent the day in front of a constant news cycle. They don’t feel like marketing at all, but rather a rally cry that reassures us the world is good, strong, and will return from this with stronger and better than before.

The Bad

Now, let’s talk about the word “opportunistic.” Many companies, specifically those in the realm of retail, have capitalized on the current circumstances, thus making them experts in opportunism; however, it doesn’t go unnoticed. It can leave a bad taste in the mouths of consumers when they realize that a brand is taking advantage of a bad situation and trying to profit from it. It’s even worse when brands and companies think they’re getting away with it and covering up their 18th email that week under the premise of “the perfect WFH essentials.” Opportunism is not a good look.

The car industry has certainly tried being empathetic by positioning themselves as “here for you.” However, 30-second spots that end with a hard sell immediately kill any warm-and-fuzzy feelings they were hoping for.

It’s no secret or surprise that our economy has suffered greatly due to the COVID-19 crisis – not to mention the countless people currently out of work. Yet, the messaging doesn’t cease. Here’s an important thing that some companies should have taken note of more quickly: it’s OK to be quiet and empathetic instead of desperately trying to sell everything in the warehouse and guilting people about continuing to support businesses.

And speaking of supporting businesses – it’s very important that companies support their own employees. As the coronavirus crisis began to take shape, many companies were slow to react and inappropriately prioritized shareholders over employees. In a Business Insider article from April, billionaire businessman and Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, offered this sentiment, “New up and coming consumers, the younger generations, Gen Z and millennials, they pay attention,” he said. “If you get branded as a company that acted in bad faith, laid off all your employees, or really cut back and you took a bonus or whatever, you’re going to get crushed and your brand is going to go straight into the toilet.”

Instead of using this crisis to sell or to blow smoke in the eyes of consumers, use this crisis to communicate in a human way. Promote productive tips via social media, use email vernacular that doesn’t rub people the wrong way, and most importantly, in the words of our very own CEO, Amanda Lucey, “Lead with empathy.”

The Poorly Timed

There are a slew of TV spots and digital ads that were pulled at the last minute – or in some cases, just as they were launching. These ads are not necessarily bad takes, but rather poorly timed in the new normal of social distancing and safety protocols.

For example, Geico pulled its “Perfect High Five” spot in mid-March. The spot featured a woman who switches to Geico and compares it to the feeling of giving a perfect high five at work. Everyone in the office starts celebrating the perfect high five, high fiving one another, and then two giant hands descend from above to reenact it. While it’s entirely harmless, it’s not the appropriate time to display an entire scene about touching when we shouldn’t be doing so at all.

KFC suffered a similar fate. The fried chicken brand had to suspend its U.K. campaign, which used the classic tagline, “finger-lickin’ good,” and featured tons of people eating chicken and, well, licking their fingers to the tune of Chopin piano music. Obviously, it was not taken lightly amid the current climate and received 163 official complaints according to the Advertising Standards Authority in the U.K.

Additionally, even though Lysol products have been flying off the shelves as people commit to cleanliness and sanitization, their ads have come across as completely tone-deaf. With three ads still running in mid-March, consumers took to social media to discuss their distaste for Lysol’s apparent fearmongering in cheery-toned spots. Many people were also upset to still be seeing the ads when Lysol products are out of stock and unavailable to people who need them in many places throughout the country.

Of course, these are all brands that we admire and love to support, but unfortunately the timing was less than stellar. While you may have delivered the right messaging, you also need the right timing – and we can learn from this that sometimes the odds just aren’t in your favor.

Final Thoughts

There is no playbook on how to properly market and advertise during a worldwide pandemic because, well, this is an unprecedented situation. Many brands are doing it right by showing their human side, taking care of their customers, making sure their employees are safe and compensated appropriately, and doing their part to help. Others have decided to take an opportunistic approach ­­– which will inevitably lead to a bad taste in the mouths of consumers and other brands will take note of such.

What is most important is that business doesn’t have to cease – it has to pivot. It has to be molded properly and with care to fit the times and to offer substance, not sales. When this ends, and it will end, there will be champions and there will be those who took advantage of their once-loyal consumers. It’s best to err on the side of humanity and, of course, lead with empathy. 


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