Janine A. E. Strandberg: Solidarity for sale: Corporate social responsibility and newsjacking in global advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic
"Examination of these adverts shows that, in order to compensate for this lack of legitimacy, the brands emphasise humour and, above all, a sense of solidarity. By avoiding direct promotion of products and instead encouraging the audience to take care, stay united, and protect themselves and their loved ones, these brands are fostering a sense that they themselves care about the consumers."
Communicating solidarity in a global crisis In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced nations to take extreme measures in attempts to slow the progression of the virus. Work, education, and information services moved into online environments as millions of people retreated into their homes. Because of this drastic change in consumer behaviour, businesses and companies were forced to re-evaluate their marketing strategies in order to reach consumers online, but also to be seen as being proactively involved in fighting the virus. This linguistic landscape project examines a number of pandemic advertisement campaigns, in which messages of public safety are spread by large international brands while endorsing their own product or image. The study shows how brands use creative displays of imagery and language in digital communications to emphasise solidarity and “togetherness” during the pandemic. The messages examined are those that were expressed by the WHO and governments around the world: ‘stay home’, ‘wash your hands’, ‘practice social distancing’, and ‘wear a mask’. Corporate social responsibility Due to the impact of COVID-19 on the global economy, significant changes have taken place in modern marketing, influencing consumer ethics as well as corporate social responsibility  (henceforth CSR). From the start of the pandemic, CSR activities were expected from certain types of businesses, as companies in the hospitality sector (such as hotels or airlines) were expected to take responsibility for public health and safety by offering free cancellations and refunds. Many companies outside the tourism and hospitality sector also chose to proactively engage in CSR activities; some manufacturers, such Vauxhall or Airbus, began transforming their factories in order to 3D-print parts for ventilators, while independent UK brewer BrewDog announced that they would begin producing hand sanitiser. Through such actions, brands were able to cultivate a positive image while demonstrating social responsibility during the crisis. In a similar approach, some companies chose to indirectly promote themselves through the repetition of health and safety messages, a tactic that could be seen as a moderate form of CSR activity. An example of a campaign echoing the well-known message of ‘stay home’ is pictured in this advertisement by IKEA, which sports the humorous faux Nordic text “Stay Höme”, is modelled after the simple style in which the furniture and houseware manufacturer prints assembly instructions. The viewer is told that they need one key, and one lock, as well as a hundred rolls of toilet paper, with the latter being a humoristic reference to the toilet paper shortages that occurred in the spring of 2020.
Image source: https://www.adsoftheworld.com/media/print/ikea_stay_home Newsjacking
To some extent, communications such as these can be argued to be beneficial in echoing important messages of healthcare officials. However, while these advertisements are intended to demonstrate social responsibility, they effectively function as newsjacking, allowing brands to advertise theirproducts while developing their public images through messages of solidarity. The term newsjacking was coined by David Meerman Scott to express how brands can create advertisements orsocial media content based on breaking news, thereby gaining media coverage and considerable engagement at practically no cost. By using topical news stories in their advertisement, brands are able to create messages that capture the audience's attention. This study shows how brands made use of COVID-19-related health and safety messages in an effort to stay relevant during the pandemic. While standard advertisement through the promotion of goods or services could have been perceived as callous in the midst of the crisis, campaigns of solidarity allowed many brands to promote themselves while cultivating a positive image. A select sample of the analysed adverts are discussed below. Hashtags and redesigned logos The most popular messages adopted by brands seemed to be ‘stay home’ and ‘practice social distancing’. In addition to the advert by IKEA, many other companies also ran campaigns with the phrase ‘stay home’. Netflix ran a campaign that used the hashtag #StayHome in various slogans printed in the style of well-known television shows hosted by the streaming service, while Google Earth ran a #NoFomo campaign that also urged viewers to stay home, because the view outside would not have changed.
Social distancing was likewise heavily endorsed by a number of large companies, including Absolut vodka and Hershey’s chocolate. In many cases, the message was transmitted through very simple ads that demonstrated slightly altered versions of well-known logos. For instance,car manufacturer Audi released an advert displaying the four rings of their logo separated, alongside the slogan “Audi. Keep distance”. While a similar approach was used by many other companies, including Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, and McDonald's,one of the most notable campaigns promoting promoting social distancing in this manner was launched by Coca-Cola, who displayed an advertisement in Times Square in New York City. The advert displayed the dispersed letters of the logo alongside a slogan stating “Staying apart is the best way to stay united”. An almost identical advert, demonstrated below, was posted on Twitter by Coca-Cola Ghana. The message reads “Today, being apart is the best way of being together”. Notably, in a counter-move to the brands altering their logos to allude to social distancing, communications technology company Zoom launched a campaign that encouraged viewers to “Shorten the distance”; the ad showed the two <o>s of the Zoom logo overlapping, indicating the virtual shortening of distance between people who could not be together physically.
Image source: https://twitter.com/cocacola_gh/status/1241456998954213376 In the early days of the pandemic, a number of public awareness campaigns encouraged people to wash their hands and wear a mask. Interestingly, international brands seemed less eager to adopt statements relating to these messages, compared to the popularity of ‘stay home’ or ‘practice social distancing’. One of the few exceptions is a pandemic advertisement by the soap brand Dove, which shows the brand name and logo alongside a text encouraging the audience to “Take care, be safe”, followed by the hashtag #WashToCare. The logo, which usually features only a dove, has been altered to show the roof of a house, thus alluding to the message of ‘stay home’ without stating it outright.
Wearing a mask was promoted by Starbucks, who ran a campaign in the UK showing a take-away coffee cup. Where the barista usually writes the name of the customer, the image shows the handwritten text “Mmphffh”, intended as a humorous representation of the muffled sound of a customer providing their name through a mask. While the Starbucks advertisement asks customers straightforwardly to wear a maskin store, the British condom company Durex took a more creative leap in relation to mask-wearing. Their advert showed a blue surgical mask with the text “Going out”, next to a matching blue condom package with the text “Going in”. The slogan states “Protect yourself and your loved ones”, humorously drawing parallels between the use of a surgical mask and a condom in reference to protecting oneself as well as other people against contagion.
Legitimacy in solidarity
It is often presumed that advertisement should not encourage negative emotions. In an effort to de-emphasise any negativeassociations, the tone of these pandemic advertisementstends to be hopeful and humorous, and the brands are shown to prefer messages that are less obviously negative. This is demonstrated by the fact that the statements ‘stay home’ and ‘maintain social distancing’ were far more common in brand communications than the equally important messages of ‘wear a mask’ and ‘wash your hands’. In fact, the advertisements that did refer to handwashing avoided doing so directly; even the advert by soap manufacturer Dove largely focused on taking care and being safe, with ‘washing’ only being referred to in the hashtag.
According to Scott, brands should have a legitimate tie to a story in order to successfully newsjack it, in particular in case of bad news. During the pandemic, it would be very easy for traditional newsjacking to be perceived negatively by the generalpublic and for companies to face backlash because of it. While some companies whose advertisements were included in the study did have a legitimate claim to referring to the pandemic in their communications (for instance, Zoom and Dove), most companies had little to do with ways to improve human life during the pandemic. Examination of these adverts shows that, in order to compensate for this lack of legitimacy, the brands emphasise humour and, above all, a sense of solidarity. By avoiding direct promotion of products and instead encouraging the audience to take care, stay united, and protect themselves and their loved ones, these brands are fostering a sense that they themselves care about the consumers.COVID-19 has raised people's expectation of businesses being more socially responsible, and the emphasis onsolidarity and CSR that is visible in these advertisements demonstrates that large international brands have been aware of this since the start of the pandemic.
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