Advertising in a Crisis – Be Wary of Lessons from Past Recessions

It is no surprise that our industry’s commentators, researchers and (naturally) bloggers are all focusing on what happens to marketing and advertising during a recession. These include the excellent Mark Ritson, whose column in ‘Marketing Week’ references data right back to the 1920s.

The evidence, even back 100-odd years ago is clear. Those brands that continue to advertise throughout a recession, at a time when the less-well-informed competition is pulling back emerge stronger as a result.

This is hardly surprising – there’s less clutter, the brands that advertise increase their share-of-voice and build on what Professor Ritson calls their ESOV (excessive share-of-voice) and are thus in a great position to hit the ground running when the economic climate improves.

But evidence from past recessions is not the whole answer, although certain principles still hold.

First, what we are in now isn’t anything like any other recession. I have some qualifications in saying this, given I’ve been through a few, going back to the three-day week of the 1970’s.

I also worked with and learnt from Dr Simon Broadbent who did splendid work advancing the ‘why brands should continue to advertise’ case in the 1980’s.

Plus I lived and worked through the 1990’s, and the 2008 versions.

I’m not saying I have the data or the perspicacity of Mark Ritson, but I have experienced recessions from inside the ad industry.

And – I can tell you this is nothing like anything I’ve ever seen before.

An economic recession is of course a dreadful thing. People have less money to spend, services are cut, people lose their jobs. It impacts many – but in a way that they themselves cannot impact. It is something that happens to you, over which you have zero control.

Life continues. Advertising, as part of life continues. Yes, you may see fewer ads, yes the content of the ads may be tweaked, but I have never seen data suggesting that the average consumer thinks: why is Brand A advertising during a recession?

Look around you now. People you know, and I know are getting sick. Some, tragically are dying, alone and frightened. Very many of us are in some form of lock-down, being told when we can go out, where, what for and for how long.

Of course we cannot see or control the virus but we can act to do something to limit its spread. We are all invested in the process.

Life is most definitely not continuing largely as before.

This is a global health crisis which no doubt will metamorphose into an economic recession, but right now and I suggest for the foreseeable future it’s about health. It’s about doing what we can to stay alive, and to help others stay alive.

In these circumstances is it right for brands to advertise at all? I would say it is, as long as the tone and the approach are very carefully thought through. I suspect that unlike in the past consumers will certainly question the wisdom of brands advertising whilst their owners are laying off staff, and whilst the future is so uncertain.

We all preach the importance of empathy, of appealing to those we wish to reach and influence in a tone of voice that reflects the audience’s priorities and values, but those priorities are very different from what they were just a few short months ago.

Now is the time for advertisers to offer help, to do good. Advertising alone cannot do that – so a bank saying in an ad that they’re there for me is one thing, but if I cannot get through to them, or if I do get through and the call centre is obtuse and confusing in the messages it sends out then the ads backfire, spectacularly.

A supermarket can send out all the ‘we’re here for you’ emails it wants but if you cannot get a delivery slot for love nor money the mails will count for nothing.

What will be remembered is that the bank couldn’t help, or the supermarket couldn’t deliver, not the warm, fluffy ads saying they were there by your side when you needed them.

Remember we are living through a time when advertising per se is not trusted. How consumers perceive ads, what they think of them, the extent that they empathise with them, the degree that they believe them, the fact that they increasingly don’t trust many of the media forms in which they appear, all of these are comparatively recent phenomena.

Consumer attitudes towards the media, and the advertising within those media have to be factored in to the ‘lessons learned from past recessions’ articles and webinars. The SoV / SoM numbers alone are nothing like enough.

We also need to consider more marketing levers than advertising. Most commentators focus on ad spend and related data points as that’s the data they have.

But – today we have many more outlets, more techniques, and a far greater range of communication options than in past recessions (even 2008).

All of which means we need to take the ‘lessons from past recessions’ pieces with a pinch of salt. This is a whole new ball of wax, for all of us. How consumers see advertising and ads (indeed, how they consume commercial messages beyond ads) aren’t the same as even 12 years ago. And that matters.

Last week I interviewed Bob Hoffman, the AdContrarian on behalf of asi and asked him for his thoughts on advertising in a time of crisis. You can listen to the interview here.

Bob’s always great value so give yourselves a break from your busy day of staying at home and enjoy.

Stay safe, people and stay well.


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