Updated: Apr 18, 2020
As cases of the coronavirus (Covid-19) increase internationally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and governments alike are engaging in information warfare to combat the spread of the virus. Elsewhere, brands — usually the first react and engage with newsworthy topics — have steered well clear, despite the clear social good (and potential financial) incentives.
Since the first instances of the virus were detected in China's Wuhan province on 31 December, examples of brands using their marketing might to share helpful information have been few and far between. Even those in the travel and health sectors, who have had their services directly impacted by the outbreak, have shied away from addressing the issue directly their campaigns.
One outlier is Lush, which recently invited the UK public to wash their hands in-store for free. Posters promoting the initiative throughout its UK stores make no mention of the virus, instead offering a contextual prompt to a public scrambling for cleanliness.
In a statement, the company said: “Since we’re universally known as ‘that soap shop’, from Friday 28 February we’re using our shop windows to promote the hand-washing guidelines as advised by the NHS in the UK and other public health organisations around the world,” the company said in a statement.
“The winter months are always a time when hand hygiene matters because coughs and colds pass around, but the current situation with the spread of the new Coronavirus means that it is more important than ever that people regularly wash their hands and observe best practice.
“It is also important that people understand the full, effective routine of washing as advised by the health authorities to maximize the removal of germs.”
Lush chief executive Mark Constantine fell short of naming the illness in his own explanation.
“The simplest thing you can do to not get a virus is to regularly wash your hands," he said."So we’re saying people can come in off the street and wash their hands in our place. We’ve got loads of soap and plenty of hot water."
This wisdom is likely to drive footfall to stores as coronavirus continues its global spread, with the brand sticking its neck out in a way very few have.
Brands 'unsure' how to help
Owen Lee, chief creative officer of FCB Inferno, tells The Drum, he's spoken to and heard of brands that want to help, but are unsure if and how they can.
“Brands are nervous about appearing to profit from this crisis. The conversation is being had in many client and agency organisations, but they have to be absolutely sure they are helping people not just making money from it, or being seen to make money from it.”
For Lee, any brand considering linking itself to a public health scare will have to first ask if they have a "genuine association" with it and if they have an active role to play in helping.
"Advertisers also need to be careful they don’t do anything that runs counter to government advice. People are confused about how they should act so brands need to be careful not to add to the confusion.”
It’s largely uncharted territory. While Lee offers examples of businesses aiding the WWII propaganda effort (like Coca-Cola) he hesitates to conjure any positive examples around the spread of disease. He concludes: “I dare say condom brands even jumped on the AIDS virus scare campaign in the late 1980s.”
'Stay the hell out of it unless you absolutely can’t'
Nervousness withstanding, bad players looking to profit from growing emergency have emerged too.
Facemask prices and health-aid prices have been jacked up to exploit demand. For its part, Amazon has warned sellers against exploitative price gouging around antibacterial and precautionary products.
Health experts, meanwhile, have warned that the effectiveness of masks has been over-egged at best, and they are hastening the spread at worst. A quick scan of Instagram shows masked influencers and celebs partaking in something between misinformation and false advertising.
Meanwhile, retailers have had their own ups and downs.
Those selling near affected areas have been selling out of certain food types and hygiene products.
This new demand is a gift to retailers - if they are a position to restock, and secondly, if there remains a public still willing to risk a visit to the high street. In the UK, Boots the pharmacy recently ran out of hand soap. A section of the pharmacist's website explains how to minimize exposure to the disease and there is a subtle call to action to shop its antibacterial soaps there.
Online advertising has been impacted too. On Google, brands are now restricted from buying keywords sensitive events, including disease. So, for now, there's no promoted search results appearing atop vital news services reporting on coronavirus.
All in, ad land has shown an uncharacteristic level of self-control around reactive marketing. This may be down to the fear that any comparisons with the virus can hurt brand perception. The unfortunately named Corona beer has taken a hit, according to a small sample PR poll, although the brewer denies sales have been hurt.
Doctor Ryan Wallman, creative director and head of copy at Wellmark, and author of Delusions of Brandeur, couldn't think of many positive campaigns around health issues and argues there's little precedent for businesses to get involved. The freshest campaign he could highlight was a “horribly tone-deaf 'Unhappy meals' campaign from Burger King”, which drew criticism from mental health campaigners last year.
Wallman explained: "I suspect brands don’t want to be associated with [coronavirus], even if it’s in an ostensibly helpful way. I’m no PR person, but you get the sense that the risk of a negative association is just too great.
“The risks of getting it wrong are greater in healthcare than in most other areas. My advice is to stay the hell out of it unless you absolutely can’t.”
As the UK awaits a public health campaign from the government, brands could lend their media space or assets to amplify the message. As could the tech platforms that command so much of the public's attention. Facebook has been planking coronavirus advice on its newsfeed, it has also said it is curbing misinformation about the disease, if not political advertising, at least.
With the final severity of the pandemic yet to be realized, caution from advertisers remains well placed.