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Digital Advertising During COVID-19

March 19 2020

The spread of COVID-19 in the United States has quickly changed the way many companies are doing business. As more and more people stay home, increase health and cleanliness measures, and adapt to remote work, companies are rising to the challenge of meeting consumers’ needs, with varying degrees of success. 

Early on, Microsoft made its online collaboration platform, Teams, available free for six months and later faced technical issues when demand from Europe became high. GoJo made claims that its Purell hand sanitizer “may be effective against viruses” and got a warning from the FDA. Airbnb made generous expansions to its cancellation policies, letting travelers off the hook for fees and infuriating hosts in the process. Some brands tapered off digital advertising altogether, such as airlines and cruise companies, and others stepped up their advertising in the name of education. Here, we’ll give you a glimpse of how the coronavirus pandemic has affected advertising since the beginning of the year.

Cruise advertising spend in the wake of COVID 19

Cruise Operators and Airlines Struggle

After passengers aboard the Diamond Princess and other cruise ships were verified to have been infected with COVID-19 in February, cruise companies began canceling trips and reducing their advertising. Explorer data shows the companies beginning their winter advertising ramp-up, preparing for cruise season in the spring, and then plummeting to virtually nothing by March. The outlier is Carnival Corporation, parent company of Princess Cruises, which shows some advertising bursts through mid-March. It’s top-performing March creative tells prospective travelers that they can “book in advance for 30% off + $50 deposits through 2022.”

The chart of daily ad spend by the airline industry looks like an EKG gone haywire. The rate rises and falls on a near-daily basis, with each carrier making drastically different decisions. United and American were leading the pack with overall ad spend this year, with Delta not far behind. But in the past week, Alaska Airlines’ spend spiked higher than their competitors. Their creatives announced the “March-Forward Sale,” a campaign that drew its moniker from daylight savings but also sounds like a battle cry for consumers to keep buying plane tickets.  

Airlines advertising in the wake of COVID 19

Media Companies 

To get an understanding of which brands were adapting their creatives to the COVID-19 pandemic, we pulled keyword data from creatives and landing pages. In  January, 27% of the brands using the word “coronavirus” were media outlets advertising their own news coverage. Pharma and healthcare accounted for an additional 6% of this word usage and financial services accounted for 5%. These numbers shifted slightly in February, with media outlets making up 21% of the brands using the word “coronavirus,” financial services increasing to 10%, and pharma and healthcare staying about the same at 4%. No other industry – such as consumer packaged goods or arts and entertainment – showed significant deployment of the word “coronavirus” in January or February, perhaps to avoid negative associations or even potential legal ramifications.

American Medical Association Digital AdsWhen we examined the creatives themselves, we saw an abundance of prolific corporations and institutions doing their best to arm the public with knowledge and keep anxiety levels low. A February Twitter ad from E-Trade asserted “Stocks near high despite fears” and “Fed monitoring economic impact.” The Wall Street Journal advertised an article called “All Your Coronavirus Travel Questions Answered.”  The American Medical Association produced a Facebook ad where they encouraged users to click and “learn the latest advice from the CDC.” A creative from Anthem Blue Cross Medi-Cal also advised getting up-to-date on CDC recommendations and reminded its members to wash their hands. The New York Times and the Washington Post each introduced maps that tracked the spread of the virus, visual reminders of where the term “going viral” came from. In a time where new information becomes available on a daily, if not hourly, basis, advertisers are jumping into the fray to become educational outlets.

Let Us Help You Make Digital Decisions 

As brands in every industry make business decisions around the pandemic, it’s critical to know how your competitors are advertising. Pathmatics Explorer gives you an inside look into creatives, ad spend, ad formats, and more across hundreds of brands. Schedule a custom insights session to get started today.   

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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