COVID-19 reveals the importance of media and advertising

Kendall Anthony-Busbee

Contributor Writer

Illustration by Kendall Anthony-Busbee.

Advertising plays an important role in COVID-19 responses, even as the virus poses a threat to the industry. Several experts reflect on the development of advertising and its effects on the media during this global pandemic.

“COVID-19 has completely changed the world of advertising. Period. Full stop,” said Nathan Jordan, creative director for Market Connections based in Asheville. “I can tell you creative leaders all over the country are actively discussing how this is changing the advertising landscape on a seemingly daily basis.”

The drastic change may be unparalleled but much of the media industry seems unfazed. Considering the digitization of media, swiftness in mobile consumption and domineering nature of social media, companies are still able to monetize content, according to Stephanie O’Brien, lecturer of mass communication at UNC Asheville.

“I’m fascinated by the immediacy of commercials that have come out with COVID-19 as the focus. Not just government PSAs, but local car dealers, local law firms, local news organizations,”  O’Brien said. “The #weareWNC campaign for instance. It is an amazing view of capitalism at work – keeping us all thinking about consuming either online or once ‘We get through all of this together’ and can spend, spend, spend. My guess is that we will see more commercials that focus on community and togetherness rather than individualism, though individualism permeates this crisis.”

The world of advertising has changed drastically in the past month, according to Matt Levin, creative director for Element Advertising in Asheville.

“Communication strategy and messaging norms have shifted. It is up to advertisers to help their clients adjust and communicate their messages in a way that is sensitive to the current environment and prevent them from doing damage to their brands,” Levin said. “How a brand communicates now will have a lasting effect.”

The COVID-19 outbreak appears disruptive for every industry. For advertisers, the Coronavirus creates both opportunities and challenges, according to Jordan.

“In my personal experience I never thought I would be tasked with developing a tourism advertisement or social media strategy that communicates a message asking visitors not to visit, or helped a small business, such as a locally owned restaurant with primarily dine-in clientele, redefine their entire business model in a matter of weeks,” Jordan said. “Since the outbreak of the virus our team and virtually all of my peers have been forced to rethink how to do more with less while simultaneously producing a message that is not only responsible during this unprecedented time but effective as well.”

While media and advertising aid in passing the time during quarantine and self-isolation, they also keep consumers informed, which proves to be increasingly important during times of COVID-19, according to O’Brien.

“Certain aspects of advertising are important – PSAs, particularly from the AD council are vital in getting out important information to the public. Other advertisements that tell us when events are happening or other community information are also helpful,” said O’Brien. “In terms of advertising for consumerism, there are some aspects that are helpful in terms of giving information that could be relevant for the consumer to make decisions. However, the customer has to practice critical media literacy skills along with critical thinking in order to discern which elements are relevant and which are puffery or possibly deceptive.”

Jordan acknowledges that advertising takes many forms in daily life and oftentimes the consumer may not recognize how they are being marketed to when receiving a promotional message.

“Whether or not it is important largely depends on the goal of the ad itself. The range of importance varies greatly from trivial to vital. I have been lucky enough in my career to promote brands that align with my personal values and support communities which rely largely on advertising to generate a sustainable economy. In those instances, I would say advertising is not only important, but essential,” said Jordan.

Illustration by Kendall Anthony-Busbee.

Honest businesses communicate clearly and effectively, as they need to let people know what they are offering. Advertising gives a platform where they can do that, according to Susan Hutchinson, advertising, design and distribution manager for Mountain Xpress.

“The sneaky bastard in the room is called ‘Native Advertising,’ that form presents paid content as a “news” story. The point is to deceive the reader into thinking that the ‘persuasive communication’ is unbiased reporting,” Hutchinson said. “Most aggregating websites do that, as do Facebook and Google. We don’t do that at Mountain Xpress, which puts us at a financial disadvantage but we sleep better at night. We hope that our readers will continue to value our service because we aren’t trying to trick them. Trust is gold.”

Jordan said the most common tactics, aside from imagery, typography and color schemes used in design to convey messages, live within the digital space. From social media influencers to native content digital ads, the amount of subliminal advertising in the market proves staggering.

“As consumers we are all constantly bombarded with marketing messages, many of which we are not aware. There is a reason for this, and simply put, that reason is it’s often more compelling to the consumer than traditional advertising. Look no further than your own social media feed to see clear examples of this. Peer referral is a coveted level of engagement we all seek as advertisers and marketers. That’s why we often utilize this tactic in our marketing strategies,” Jordan said. “When native content on a website or on your friend’s social media page looks and feels organic, subliminal advertising has hit the mark and will be extremely effective. As consumers it is our responsibility to be mindful of these tactics and spend our dollars wisely with organizations and brands that reflect our values.”

Advertisers have many tools that aid in persuading and influencing a consumer’s purchases but  the viewer’s perceived sense of free will continues to be of immeasurable value, according to Jordan.

“Advertising at its core is about generating awareness and a call to action. As advertisers and marketers, we possess a wide variety of techniques and tools we utilize to achieve this goal. Persuasive communication can be pushed to the level of subliminal persuasion and it is absolutely an ethical problem we face as marketers,”  Jordan said. “Perspectives on this vary greatly within the industry, but my team chooses to be selective with our clients. When we promote a product, service or destination we believe in, the work pays dividends beyond monetary compensation.”

Maggie Tilley, founder and president of G&T Communications, Inc., said  times of crisis are some of the most important times for businesses and organizations to communicate with the people on whom their success depends.

“Whether that communication is in the form of advertising, working with the news media, social media or more traditional forms of communication, this is when relationships are solidified and impacted for years to come. Social science tells us during times when people are experiencing trauma their memories are heightened. It’s a survival mechanism that helps us learn who is for us and who is not,” Tilley said. “By demonstrating genuine concern for people during times of crisis without exploiting the moment — advertising helps forge a bond that will last for quite some time. Advertising shapes perceptions.”

While the pandemic causes many changes to daily life, the vital role that advertising has within society continues to be undeniable. Tilley said professional communicators have a responsibility to decide whether or not to be a force for something positive and that’s going to make the world a better place.

“I believe advertisers — all communicators — also need to set their intention for what they are trying to accomplish. Whatever we do is going to have an impact; it’s going to leave a trail in the sands of time. Personally, I want to do everything within my power to communicate with integrity,” Tilley said. “That goes back to intention. It also means depending on others to provide you with accurate information. They can let you down, and at some point, they probably will. That’s life. But, you still have to keep trying. We must act with integrity if we want an honorable society.”

Illustration by Kendall Anthony-Busbee.

Levin affirms this responsibility and describes current strategies being implemented to combat the pandemic’s effect on businesses.

“We are currently working with our clients to provide a phased approach on how to re-open their businesses and tourism destinations. We start with research. We find out how the COVID-19 pandemic will psychologically affect people and try to craft messages and show imagery that is sensitive to those feelings,” Levin said. “For an example, the majority of those surveyed said that they will not feel comfortable attending large gatherings for some time. They want to know that destination is taking all precautions for safety. They want to know how a brand is helping in the time of need and if they are expressing empathy. If a brand carries on like nothing has happened or show insensitivity, they will be punished by the consumers.”

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