Advertising in the Time of COVID-19

Well, That Was Fast


Almost a year ago, most of the United States entered a period of lockdown in an attempt to thwart the spread of COVID-19. For marketers facing an economic crisis, this presented a conundrum unlike any they’d seen before. On the one hand, it was likely that spending would drop, although the increase in nationwide unemployment payouts helped mitigate that. On the other hand, they now had a “captive audience” like never before, with people streaming movies and television from home at a record rate.

The lifestyles of those consumers had changed dramatically — could advertisers meet the challenge?

They certainly tried.

For retailer Carvana, the virus was almost a boom. The Tempe, Arizona based auto seller had already gained fame for its “car vending machines” in several large American cities, but it had yet to crack the national market. As their ads put it, they wanted to be a coast-to-coast solution for new car sales, and our newly confined circumstances meant many more Americans were interested in Carvana than ever before. The company dumped money into its streaming ads, and the results speak for themselves: Bottoming at $30 million in March, their stock was valued at more than $200 million just a few months later.

Some advertisers settled for merely reflecting the new norms of remote life and work in their advertising, with mixed results. If we weren’t tired of the Zoom-focused Progressive ads featuring Flo and cohorts back in spring 2020, we’ve surely grown tired of their hard-to-parse antics by now. No matter who’s doing the advertising studies done as early as April 2020 found that many consumers were tired of being reminded of the pandemic every time they sat down to watch TV. With national anxiety at an all-time high and mental illness spiking during the pandemic, that’s no surprise. People didn’t want to face the reality of the virus every 10 minutes due to advertisements.

On the other hand, some businesses were just hampered by circumstance. Carnival and Norwegian Cruise lines both ran aground with their streaming ads focused on spring and summer getaways. These seemed especially tone-deaf given that cruise ships made headlines at the time as vectors for massive COVID-19 spread.

But the true loser of 2020 advertising was Corona beer. The poor beverage company never stood a chance.

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