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Crisis Slogans and Empathy Advertising

By Anna Lilley

By now, we are all familiar with the ‘STAY HOME, PROTECT THE NHS, SAVE LIVES’ instructions branded in bold across PM Boris Johnson’s lectern during his daily pandemic briefings. Government advice has been underlined by use of a classic advertising device, the slogan.

In fact, slogans across the world have begun to resemble wartime propaganda. Think back to Lord Kitchener’s ‘Your Country Needs You’ or posters stamped with the words ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘We Can Do It! Even the hashtag #workfromhome has flooded across social media with the same bold emphasis. Universally, catchy phrases have been creating a sense of calm and solidarity amidst the chaos. Words help to unify and motivate the public; “we’re in this together”, “it’s not forever”, “we can do this”, “flatten the curve!”.

Brands have adopted the same strategy in a desperate attempt to appeal to their new market of indoor consumers. Language is becoming more eye-catching than images as our superficial, visual consumer world has been forced into the shadows. Now, to trap the attention of people, brands must speak to us, grab us with words.

There is a new empathetic tone in advertising. Humanity is becoming more important than usual commercial strategy. Some have criticised fast fashion brands such as PrettyLittleThing for capitalising on the crisis, quoting Boris in their ‘Stay home in style’ edits. Naturally, ethical concerns about their factory lines have been the main cause of apprehension amongst buyers. The sceptical view is that companies are exploiting the government message as a magnet to customers.

But can empathy really be an illusion? Are companies simply trying to trick us? I think it would be cynical to criticise all brands of solely capitalising on crisis. Certainly, from some there seems a genuine charitable effort. Superficial glossy content and manipulative advertising is becoming more and more irrelevant and obvious- why do you think social media influencers have gone so quiet? This is not the time for selfish marketing, it is a time for empathy. People want comfort, and certain advertising agencies have hit the nail on the head.

BBH deserves some credit for expanding on their heart-warming TESCO ‘Food Love Stories’ commercial. Home videos of people cooking and baking in their kitchens have been compiled into an emotional montage, dubbed with Passenger’s ‘Let Her Go’ as a soundtrack. Children scream ‘We’ve made cakes for Granny’ and the final message reads ‘Dedicate the food you love to the people you love’.

Saatchi and Saatchi’s German Nivea ad has the same warmth. Clips of people on the front line, scenes of people sewing masks and waving at each other from doorsteps. A girl cuts her friend’s fringe, a child holds a hand up to her grandma through a care home window. They have even included a Zoom call and people passing gifts across balconies. And of course, ending on the clap for healthcare workers. The entire reel is accompanied with an acoustic version of Ben E. King’s ‘Stand by Me’. It is almost as tear-jerking as a John Lewis Christmas ad.

Mother’s recent ‘Silence the Critics’ IKEA advert gained much critical acclaim with its grime-rapping furniture animation. Now IKEA have partnered with Spanish agency McCann to create their ‘I Stay Home’ commercial. What could be a better opportunity to sell homewares than when everyone is stuck inside? Granted, IKEA are clearly able to capitalise on this crisis, but they equally reinforce the government message and emphasise this ideal of home as a place of calm. They present an encouraging message and show some obvious social responsibility in their campaign.

These advertisers are certainly in line with the advice of Craig Mawdsley, Joint Chief Strategy Officer at AMV BBDO. In a recent article he wrote, ‘Don’t be self-serving; don’t be cynical; and don’t talk like an organisation. Do the right thing, and keep doing it when this ends’. Empathy advertising is the way forward.

No doubt this is an opportunity for brands to earn some credibility, to restore trust. A 2019 report by the Advertising Association concluded that public trust has been in long-term decline since the early 90s, with advertising considered below the trust levels of energy suppliers and banking. This is because advertising is polished and persuasive. Consumers can see straight through it. Perhaps this new empathetic approach to advertising will bring the industry back down to a human level.

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