Imagery of Human Contact Is Down 30% in Social Media Ads

A computer vision firm found trends in how brands have responded to the pandemic

Two people on two yellow dots apart from one another
Social media ads reflect socially distanced norms. Getty Images

Key insights:

Quarantine culture is already causing drastic shifts in the imagery and copy that brands use to advertise on social media.

That’s according to data from marketing tech firm Pattern89, which used machine learning to track a 30% dip in social media ads featuring images or video of everyday human contact—hugging, kissing and holding hands—since March 12 amid the coronavirus pandemic hitting the United States.

At the same time, visuals associated with hand-washing have increased sixfold and those featuring travel—key terms like “airport” and “airplane”—are down about 8%. Imagery featuring electronics has also risen steadily in recent weeks to the point where 39% of social ads now include at least one device, perhaps as a consequence of increased reliance on these tools in the absence of human interaction.

The stats reflect a scramble among brand creative teams to adjust for new socially isolated norms as Americans hunker down inside to weather the global outbreak. The mass quarantine has already taken its toll on major campaigns with themes that don’t exactly fit current public health guidelines, like KFC’s “Finger Lickin’ Good” and a Hershey’s push featuring people hugging or shaking hands with strangers were both suspended, among others.

Pattern89 founder and CEO R.J. Talyor said the 30% drop is much more abrupt and pronounced than the usual fluctuations that the company tracks, which are most often seasonal.

“Normally, we see between 2% and 5% fluctuation in these types of things. So having a 30% drop is a huge outlier,” Talyor said. “We’re seeing [normal seasonal] patterns just totally get interrupted because marketers want to be sensitive to what’s going on in the world. They also want to speak in a way to walk us through the crisis.”


Talyor also expects to see the share of social ads featuring video to drop as brand marketers face quarantine-related production constraints. The prominence of video in social ads has until now been growing steadily to the point where it featured in one ad for every two image-based ones.

The new circumstances have forced Pattern89 to adjust the guidance it gives brands on what visual elements perform best. Videos featuring crowds, for instance, would usually get higher numbers in simpler times. And it hasn’t yet had enough timespan to conclusively gauge performance for the crop of new quarantine-friendly topics.

“There’s this whole interesting thing around ‘cleanliness’ and ‘refreshing’ that I think will continue to see increased performance,” Talyor said. “My hypothesis was that we’re going to see a lot of like indoor imagery, as well as quarantine-type imagery or more aspirational things.”

@patrickkulp Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.