How Marketers and Agencies Are Trying to Strike the Right Tone in the Age of Coronavirus

Coors Light, Hershey's, KFC and others have dropped campaigns that could've crossed a sensitivity line

Woman at subway station holding a toy stuffed dog
Coldwell Banker rolled out its emotional 'Guided You Home' spot as planned before the pandemic hit. Coldwell Banker
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Fast-food giant KFC debuted a new commercial recently that features 60 solid seconds of people eating chicken and then sticking their hands in their mouths. There’s no dialogue, just a lovely classical piano backdrop and lots of satisfied-looking diners ignoring their napkins. What better way to viscerally bring to life the iconic tagline “It’s finger-lickin’ good?”

Except that practice isn’t just a sign of poor table manners, it’s now actually a health hazard. With the onslaught of the novel coronavirus, consumers started complaining to the U.K.’s advertising watchdog group that the spot from Mother London was irresponsible. If touching your face right now is a no-no, then licking the remnants of lunch off someone else’s finger, as depicted in the ad, is most definitely verboten.

KFC pulled the spot, shortly before the public groundswell, saying, “It doesn’t feel like the right time to be airing this campaign, so we’ve decided to pause it for now—but we’re really proud of it and look forward to bringing it back at a later date.”

The brand is one of several that have scrapped commercials in light of the global pandemic. Hershey’s recalled its new work, which showed strangers hugging and shaking hands over gifts of chocolate. The brand noted in its statement that the “human interaction” could be seen as problematic as people social distance, shelter in place and self-quarantine to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

In a preemptive move, Coors Light dropped its plan to call itself the “Official Beer of ‘Working’ Remotely,” which would’ve centered on the now-canceled NCAA March Madness tournament and the historic slacking off around it, because the brand didn’t want to appear flip about current work-from-home mandates.

Veteran marketers and their agencies have faced plenty of volatile situations before, such as 9/11’s terrorist attacks and 2008’s recession, along with other natural and unnatural disasters. But coronavirus is unprecedented in its worldwide impact on both the population at large and the business community. 

The messages that marketers release at such a time are under a microscope, and rightly so, say executives, who have to decide whether to shelve their already-produced work, retool it, start from scratch or stay mum.

“You have to look at things with a fresh filter, be vigilant and put some thought against it,” said Joe Baratelli, evp, chief creative officer, RPA in Los Angeles. “If you just keep plowing forward as if nothing’s changed, you may have a misstep. You have to make sure the message is not tone deaf to what’s going on in the world.”

RPA had already scheduled new ads for, starring beloved actor Jeff Goldblum in his long-running role as housing guru Brad Bellflower. They’re now airing, and the agency thinks their lightness and humor could add a little much-needed levity to an anxious environment.

“People want as much normalcy as possible,” Baratelli said. “A bit of what they’re used to isn’t a bad thing. Or putting out something entertaining to help them cope can work, too.”

Execs at Gut Miami, in what they call “crisis-management mode” with clients, are taking a tough-love approach, advising some brands to stand down instead of releasing new work and counseling its roster to be introspective about who they are as brands.

“Actions will speak louder than words, and if as a marketer you can offer something for free, give important information about safety, have something concrete that can clarify, inform or serve, then do it,” said founder Anselmo Ramos. “If not, shut up.”

72andSunny execs are putting the brakes on some campaigns, while likely premiering others, knowing that “every brand and every agency is being extra sensitive to messages that could frustrate or inflame an audience that is scared and confused,” says Glenn Cole, founder and creative chair. “I especially see a reevaluation of tone. Humor isn’t out, but humor and sarcasm need to be heavily scrutinized.”

Execs are parsing every word and image, along with overall sensibilities, while determining whether to reference the coronavirus at all. They’re applauding marketers like Ford that replaced its existing campaign with one that outlines its delayed payment program and other financial breaks for car buyers.

“You’ve got to offer something to the community—otherwise, you’ll seem opportunistic,” said Margaret Johnson, partner and chief creative officer, Goodby Silverstein & Partners. “And even then, you have to be careful because you don’t want to look insincere.”

Goodby’s creative team, working remotely, churned out four ads for a client over a single weekend recently, which Johnson called “kind of unheard of.” “We’re trying to be proactive with clients and offer solutions,” she said.

On a nuts-and-bolts level, Goodby is relying on existing footage for edit-only work, given that large-scale productions and video shoots are impossible. “In a weird way, it fires you up creatively,” she said, “sparking ideas you typically wouldn’t come up with.”

72andSunny’s creatives are following that playbook, too, “rethinking our deliverables” and working with in-house resources “to create content using existing assets, UGC, stock footage and motion graphics,” Cole says.

While focusing on the present, Cole says he has an eye on the future as well. “Dedicating energy to planning for that future has powerful outcomes,” he says. “It fosters hope, it reboots confidence and momentum, and it helps besieged minds reorient toward possibility.”

Some brands, sticking to a pre-lockdown schedule, have gone ahead with campaigns that are fortuitously joyful and emotional.

Coldwell Banker recently launched its first rebrand in 40 years with a poignant campaigned, dubbed “Guiding You Home,” set to Simon & Garfunkel’s classic ballad “Homeward Bound.” Scripts had been written last fall, said CMO David Marine, and the production was one of the largest ever mounted by the brand and its longtime agency, Siltanen & Partners.

The creative aimed to unify people even before the outbreak hit. 

“Because it’s a heartfelt message, we thought it would be striking the right chord,” Marine said. “It was always based on what we thought the audience needed.”

Pepsi, for the first work in five years for Vanilla Zero Sugar and Wild Cherry Zero Sugar, debuted two music-driven spots from agencies Single Threat and Alma that show a gal dancing to The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” and a man strutting to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” Watch those without breaking into a smile? It would be tough, as the brand intended.

Marketers and their agencies are continuing to evaluate each piece of creative as events shift and evolve, and mistakes are inevitable, though the goal is to protect their brands and communicate with consumers. If one thing is clear, it’s that now is not the time for edginess or envelope pushing, execs said.

“If you’re worried about that line between appropriate and inappropriate,” Marine said, “chances are you’ve already crossed it.”

This story first appeared in the March 23, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.