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Marketing and Current Events: Advertisers Respond to COVID-19, BLM

July 10 2020 by Sarah Fleishman

The year 2020 so far has brought not one, but two major topics in marketing and current events for brands to address—or not to address—in their paid public communications. Let’s take a closer look at how the top advertisers from March through June have chosen to respond to COVID-19 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd on May 25.

About major current events, Amazon speaks when spoken to

Amazon is the second largest company in the US and was a top 3 advertiser between March 1 and June 30. Over this time period, the retail giant ran a whopping 14,422 ad creatives promoting its streaming content, daily deals, job openings, and more. Amazon’s operating practices around COVID-19 made headlines on several occasions throughout the past quarter for potentially putting employees at unfair levels of risk to deliver goods beyond what some considered essential. So, it’s no surprise it’s advertising team dedicated some of its over 14k creatives to share its side of that story. Below, you’ll see the one COVID-19 related creative that landed in Amazon’s top 10 explaining that the company has dedicated billions to “keeping employees safe and getting people what they need.”

Here’s a breakdown from Pathmatics about the creative that landed Amazon’s 5th highest spot in terms of ad spend. It’s still running on Instagram today, and already has over $1 million of spend behind it.

While most of Amazon’s advertisements still look to be business as usual, promoting its shows like the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and products like the echo dot, some were specifically focused on demonstrating Amazon’s dedication to employee safety.

Though shown on different platforms, the two ads above share a similar look and feel. In addition to assuring consumers about the validity of Amazon’s viral risk management practices, this safety-first ad campaign also seeks to attract new workers. With many traditional supply chains disrupted and rampant fears about running basic errands, American consumers looked to Amazon to fill the gaps, resulting in a workforce gap the company simply could not ignore.

It feels important that Amazon chose to engage with the COVID-19 conversation in the midst of receiving criticism from the media and experiencing an urgent need for more employees when comparing this response to the one given to the surge in national interest in the Black Lives Matter movement and dismantling systemic racism. Why? So far, none of Amazon’s ad creatives have mentioned it.

June’s 8th largest advertiser jumps into conversations about race

On the flip side, one major advertiser over the past month has had a lot more to say about the Black Lives Matter movement than COVID-19. The Biden for President campaign holds the 8th highest spot in terms of ad spend over the past month, an increase from the beginning of March where our COVID/BLM response comparison begins.

This makes sense because all political campaigns tend to ramp up their advertising as elections draw nearer, but we should be aware that the overall increase may also be part of the reason why the campaigns response to BLM looks louder overall than the COVID response. It’ll be interesting to compare them both in the next month, but in the meantime, let’s take a look at Biden’s ads so far.

Most of the Biden campaign’s top 10 ads focus on comparing Joe Biden and Donald Trump, with about half of them specifically relating to the responses of both politicians to Black Lives Matter protests. Check out the example to the left.

Looking at other ads from the Biden campaign related to different current events, including questions around the long-term stability of the essential United States Postal Service, you’ll notice the comparisons against the incumbent president are a theme.

Biden for President commented on the pandemic from a variety of angles, tying it back into discussions about the USPS and healthcare policies.

Most big advertisers simply haven’t had much to say about either topic

Of course, it isn’t surprising that the biggest advertiser over the past few months to engage with both of these current events is a political campaign. Biden for President has an expected agenda on both of these highly politicized topics, and that’s just not true for most top brands like Procter & Gamble, Apple, Disney, and Geico—all who have remained relatively silent on both accounts.

The truth is, many brands offering products and services that aren’t either political or socially engaged in nature tend not to comment in their advertisements because there are risks associated with rocking the boat. That’s what makes it so interesting when household names offering products as universally uncontroversial as ice cream break the mold.

Even as a smaller advertiser, Ben & Jerry’s makes big statements

Compared to the $224,920,900 that our investigative period’s biggest advertiser Procter & Gamble spent on ads between March 1 and June 30 2020, it’s easy to think Ben & Jerry’s $3 million advertising budget couldn’t make a statement. Looking at their top creatives, however, it’s clear that kind of thinking would be wrong.

The ad below is the one Ben & Jerry’s invested in at the third highest level since March. At first glance, it looks like it might be a response to mass incarceration concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, but look closer at the date. Clearly, this ice cream brand isn’t afraid to get involved with activism, so let’s take a closer look at how this strategy panned out through the COVID-19 outbreak and nationwide BLM protests.

This ad ran only for a short time in March, encouraging Saint Louis residents to start a conversation with their Alderman about prison reform.

As concerns about public safety became a primary focus for the nation, Ben & Jerry’s continued to consider mass incarceration as a part of this challenge in the United States. The company takes both a national and regional approach to encouraging people to act.

None of these ads have anything to do with ice cream, but using its advertising platform in this way does draw attention and support to the brand anyway—perhaps to an even greater extent than using 100% of its budget on ice cream ads would.

We’d say we’ll keep an eye on how the company’s political ads continue evolving next, but it’s likely to be limited—Ben & Jerry’s typically advertises mostly on social media, but has announced it’s participating in a media boycott of Facebook and Instagram ads as of June 24.

This decision to boycott raises an interesting question about how brands choose to interact with national news over their advertising platforms in the first place—what does each company imply about its positions on major events using its ad platforms and do their actions behind the scenes align?

If you’re investigating questions like these, make sure you check out the new creative text tool in Report Builder to get a better understanding of a brand’s narrative.

About Author
Sarah Fleishman

With over a decade of experience across digital marketing, content, creative, and PR, Sarah is a creative and dynamic thinker who loves to delight clients with unique and relatable content. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Sociology.

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