Brands Approach Holiday Ads With a Dose of Pandemic-Related Reality

Instead of going the escapism route

an older woman looking at a gift
Etsy is just one brand that addressed the pandemic elephant in the room in a holiday spot. Etsy
Headshot of Minda Smiley

Instead of avoiding the pandemic altogether, brands ranging from Etsy to the United States Postal Service are instead incorporating it into their holiday messaging.

Recent research from Gartner found that Americans are again showing similar levels of concern to Covid-19 as they did in the spring when the virus was first surging in the U.S. In a separate study, nearly 50% said they don’t want to see commercials that do not recognize these new realities.   

“Acting like this is a normal holiday season is not going to be a strategy that resonates with consumers, for whom life is incredibly different,” said Lindsey Roeschke, consumer insights analyst at Gartner.

To what extent the pandemic will continue to have an impact on daily life remains to be seen. But as marketers look ahead to events such as the Super Bowl, seeing how brands grappled with Covid-19 during the biggest shopping season of the year can provide a roadmap.

Finding flexibility

Some brands found that landing on a broad yet solid holiday concept, one that could withstand slight pivots, worked best considering the ever-evolving nature of the virus.

The United States Postal Service, for instance, wanted to relay trust in this year’s upcoming holiday campaign. In its ad, created by McCann New York, postal workers are seen trekking across the country to ensure gifts are delivered to people who won’t be with their loved ones.

“We knew this notion of being able to help people ‘deliver’ the holidays would remain an important message,” said co-chief creative officer of McCann North America Tom Murphy.

Australian retailer Myer’s ad reflects everything that the country’s been through this year—namely, the wildfires and pandemic. The ad features an over-the-top ballad where viewers are encouraged to buy gifts for the occasions they’ve missed out on this year.

“It evolved as we went, but the overall concept was always the same,” said Jim Curtis, executive creative director at Clemenger BBDO, the agency behind the campaign.

Geoff Ikin, Myer’s chief customer officer, said the brand and agency were “always fairly confident that this idea had enough flex that we could deal with whatever situation came.”

Striking the right tone

Myer’s ad takes a celebratory approach, which coincides with the country easing restrictions and allowing for larger gatherings by Christmas. But the agency had to make sure the ballad’s lyrics, many of which are humorous and lighthearted, didn’t come off as tone-deaf.

“If we were too flippant about it, because it has been such a horrible year, it will strike the wrong tone,” Curtis explained.

Ikin said the team continuously tweaked the lyrics to make sure nothing could be perceived as too irreverent. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive so far, which is great,” he added. According to Myer, the ad has resulted in some of the retailer’s highest engagement on a Christmas campaign to date.

In one of Etsy’s ads, created with help from 72andSunny, a woman who won’t see her family for the holidays is heartened when her grandson sends her a doll of himself. The ad manages to capture the sentimentality and warmth of a typical holiday ad while also addressing this year’s differences.  

“We’ve seen society really adapt to these new norms, and that has allowed for a lot more nuance in the way that we talk about the pandemic,” said 72andSunny copywriter Ivan Whitted. “This is our entire life and state of being, and so it’s not all sad and serious.” He also noted that the campaign resonated with people during testing.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@Minda_Smiley minda.smiley@adweek.com Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.
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