To restore hope, start with changing the tone of sad, one-note pandemic commercials

May 7, 2020

Article originally published in The Globe and Mail

By Dennis Matthews

Dennis Matthews is a conservative strategist and commentator who is a vice-president at the national communications firm Enterprise Canada.

Sombre piano music plays in the background. A voice speaks calmly about the “challenges” we face in “these uncertain times.” We’re heading for a new normal, the narrator says – if not exactly with those words, then something very much like them.

These days, no commercial break on television is complete unless multiple companies have reassured you that things are far from business-as-usual – as though that hasn’t become painfully obvious to all of us.

In recent months, marketers in Canada have moved with impressive speed. Advertising helped companies that sold things such as luxury SUVs, steaks and all-inclusive vacation packages stay relevant during the pandemic. Their message: showing an understanding for the concerns we were all sharing, thus demonstrating all-important shared values with customers.

But while these ads made sense at the start of the lockdown, they have grown monotonous and unavoidable amid our daily routines at home. A creative YouTube user who goes by “Microsoft Sam” even edited together a supercut of COVID-related ads to show just how similar they are. That compilation of this “coronavirus aesthetic” has more than a million views and counting – which only shows just how much time we’ve all spent on our phones lately, where we’re then served even more of these one-note ads.

The messages have matched – if not enforced – the national mood. Consumers are in a funk. A study of consumer habits across 40 countries by McKinsey & Company found that Canadians are amongst the most pessimistic and least likely to spend money right now.

So how do you connect with customers in one of the world’s most pessimistic countries? Give them a dose of optimism for normalcy.

In recent days, our political leaders have increasingly pivoted toward discussing the economic recovery and the gradual reopening of the country. A recent survey from Abacus Data shows that Canadians’ anxiety about the “long-term financial situation” is now outpacing concerns about our health care system’s capacity as the driving fear about the pandemic. This past week, Quebec Premier François Legault turned a few heads when he justified his government’s announced reopening strategy by saying, “life must go on.” But so it must – even if it has not.

That means there’s a growing opportunity for companies to shift gears and start communicating about the future, and for creativity and daring to cut through the monotony.

Making a pivot to selling products and services again will require creativity anew – the same stuff that drove brewers and distillers to make hand sanitizer instead of beer and spirits. There’s no shortage of prognosticators who have elaborate visions about what the new normal will look like when this is all over, and despite the risks present, companies brave and creative enough to make a bet on that future can lead the way.

That’s why political leaders have been talking about their strategies to reopen businesses and schools at their daily news conferences, even if the execution of those plans remains far off. People need to see reasons to hope.

It’s a safe bet Canadians are ready to see love, laughter – and yes, products they can buy – again on their screens. At some point, an advertiser will need to break beyond the safety of capturing the dour mood. So if Canadians are craving scraps of a better tomorrow, it’s time for the messages about buying things, the comeback, and getting back to work – the things that broadly reflect that sense of optimism.

It matters that such hopes and visions are missing from the ads and marketing Canadians see. Advertising doesn’t just reflect back the mood of a nation; it holds the potential to shape public opinion and change behaviours. And our economic restart will rely on everyday Canadians at least thinking about making purchases sooner rather than later.

They might be missing because over the years, advertising has shifted from aspirational to honest. Authenticity reigns supreme: just think of how parenting and beauty products are portrayed today compared to decades past.

But while we might not be ready to click buy or allowed to shop in stores as we’re used to just yet, businesses shouldn’t be ashamed to start the processes of showing consumers how they can comfortably get back to normal. We’ve shown great progress in flattening the COVID-19 curve in this country, and now it’s time to flatten the curve of ads that increasingly remind us of the bad spot we’re in, not the bright road ahead. In fact, our jobs, our economy, and our long-term financial situation depend on it. ​

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