Right now, (end of May 2020), we’re more than two months in to the Covid-19 episode of lockdown and from a media point of view, it’s been interesting to see how the advertising messages we’ve been exposed to have, understandably and appropriately, changed in that time. Initially, worry, concern and a sense of the unknown led many brands to take the welcome view that humanity, kindness and a need to work together though an incomprehensibly difficult time were far more important views to be shared, than the need to build on the bottom line.

As we continue the lockdown process and marketing creatives take tentative steps towards altering advertising messages with bolder branding campaigns, we’re increasingly seeing more humorous offerings on TV and online – in what could be viewed as a move to help cheer us through ‘the new normal’ days.

One example comes from fast food megabrand Burger King; a company that has taken an international approach to applying humour in its ad campaigns and concepts around the world during the pandemic.

In Italy, the brand’s recent ad advises audiences of a newly released Whopper burger, currently available via drive-through’s and take-away services. The Social Distancing Whopper is similar to the famous original, however contains far more onions in an effort to promote social distancing.

Whilst over in Germany Burger King’s message encourages customers to solve social distancing space concerns by creating the giant do-it-yourself crown, which effectively forces people to stay away from one another, thus maintaining a safe distance.

And tailoring messages for its South African audience, the burger giant has played on an idea as old as humanity; that we crave what we can’t have. So during a hard lockdown when every restaurant is closed, the company is supporting South Africans emotionally, by choosing to censor all its ads during this ‘Whopperless time’. Why? To reduce cravings, of course.

Each campaign is playful, but inoffensive; successfully creating a balance that is humorous, but also understanding – which in sensitive times can prove absolutely essential.

Being perceived as callous or indifferent to the Covid-19 crisis could so easily cause a brand to enter a critical situation of its own, that’s extremely difficult to resolve.

Of course, it’s relatively simple to be amusing when it comes to food and drink concepts. Staying in the sector, we move on to Mars’ brand Maltesers, which in recent years has already played to its humorous side and blended comic advertising with a disability equality and awareness message (which won the brand Channel 4’s inaugural diversity competition in 2016).

Maltesers’ latest ‘of the moment’ ads keep that “light side” message coming though as they bring domestic lockdown topics to the fore, to “celebrate the resilience that laughter builds”, according to Mars UK marketing director for bars and bitesize, Matt Boulter.

Maltesers drew on the insight that while lockdown is extremely tough for people, many benefit from a lift, which can often come from friends (and perhaps confectionery?).

The campaign shows female friends chatting on Zoom about lockdown challenges including childcare, living alone and dating. Rather than featuring user-generated content – a concept that has become increasingly popular in recent weeks – the ads use actors and scripts.

As opposed to pushing the sales metric, the campaign focuses on raising a smile (as well as building the brand), however it is also conscientious enough to recognise the serious challenges many are facing (on social media, the campaign is supported by mental health charity Mind, signposting help and advice for those struggling).

Which leads me to raise the question, ‘if you’re going to use humour in advertising, should you ensure that you’re responsible?’

Personally, I think the answer is yes: By linking its campaign to Mind, Maltesers has taken its role as a brand influencer more seriously, and strived to create an essential balance.

The brand was also in the convenient position where the campaign was running online and on TV. However when other mediums are brought into play, such as outdoor, appropriate messaging in this current time can become more challenging.

Snacking brand EMILY scheduled its first outdoor advertising campaign to run in April. The outdoor media was booked back in 2019, and was not something that could simply be cancelled at late notice. So, taking a bold approach, the brand decided to be totally transparent about the less-than-ideal outdoor situation and used the booking as an opportunity to poke fun at itself.

Attempting to raise smiles from key and frontline workers who couldn’t avoid commuting and would recognise EMILY’S marketing misfortune, the brand used tongue-in-cheek humour such as “Our first ever poster, seen by a runner and one pigeon. Typical”, “Hmmm… Maybe we should have made a TV ad instead”, and “Behold, our new poster. Now, we’ve just got to find someone to look at it”.

Importantly though, it was made clear through EMILY’s correlating social media presence and uploaded images of the outdoor campaign online, that the brand was encouraging #stayhome and didn’t actively want consumers to see the posters in person.

So it’s that balance of comic subject matter with corporate social responsibility that can harmonise the concept of using humour in lockdown advertising; acknowleding the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t simply about the restriction of staying at home. For many it has involved illness, fear, unemployment and anxiety, factors that must always be considered and respected, most certainly now and quite possibly, for some time to come.

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