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Advertising During Unprecedented Times

Advertising has weathered storms before – recessions, changes to privacy laws, competition. The number of obstacles that have been successfully addressed and mitigated are endless. However, the industry has never faced a challenge like the COVID-19 pandemic. And, the industry’s ability to adjust is being challenged.

According to a recent survey of advertising and marketing agency professionals, 82% of them had no contingency plan to manage media during a national or global crisis. With teams now working remotely, some may be struggling to coordinate planning and buying efforts. At Underscore, we are not facing this challenge for several reasons.

1. Our company made the transition to remote work several months ago unrelated to the pandemic. We were fully setup and functioning effectively from home already. This has allowed us to devote more time to clients that would ordinarily be spent commuting. Our company structure also allows us to make and processes quicker to take from ideation to implementation.

2. Our teams are heavily focused on research and looking ahead to proactively adjust to any changes to the advertising landscape. Like our approach to a cookie-less world following Google’s announcement regarding removing 3rd party cookies for data targeting, we watch the trends closely to determine the best approach to continue to drive performance and growth for our clients.

The impact of the pandemic on advertising is not equal. Brands that are want, rather than need-based, are feeling the impact more heavily. For brands that are more need-based, there may be a more positive impact on business.


Consumers do not want companies to stop advertising. In fact, for some industries, such as pharma, advertising is still critical. Because many treatments are a matter of life or death, there is still an ongoing need to educate and engage consumers. Unlike buying a pair of jeans or booking a vacation, health is even more critical right now. It cannot wait until things are better. Only 8% of consumers think advertising should be paused right now.

The Creative

Rather than pausing advertising, eMarketer’s research shows that consumers are looking for a change in brand messaging. They want to understand how brands are helpful in the new normal. This approach may require a change to creative. How are your products and services helping people in the current circumstances? Being more customer-centric, as opposed to product-centric in messaging can help brands make deeper connections during this stressful period. Particularly for pharma, are there certain types of creative, such as sponsored content and video that can replace the in-person interactions usually handled by reps currently not in the field? Is your audience clear about how your products and services will help them maintain some sense of normalcy during trying times?

The Media

In addition to understanding what the right creative is, it’s important to understand the pandemic’s impact on media consumption. Video consumption is up, driving a huge growth for Connected and OTT TV, as well as video platforms. If you do not already have a video ad strategy, now is the time to build one. A well-crafted 30 second spot can be used in multiple locations – Connected and OTT, online ads and social media are a few that come to mind.

Speaking of social media, there is huge opportunity within the channel right now. Because some of the larger players, like travel companies, who use the platforms heavily for advertising have dropped spends to zero, massive amounts of inventory are available. And, that inventory is available at much lower costs due to the absence of the larger players in the space. Because consumers are more likely to crowdsource information regarding health and wellness, now is a good time to develop a strategy and establish a presence.

Another media channel worth looking at right now? Audio. 83% of Americans are reporting the same or increased engagement with the channel due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The numbers are up more than 11% for Adults overall and 10% for adult men, while women show a smaller increase of 4%. Because audio has the largest reach of any channel and listeners are more likely to trust information gathered from audio, brands can drive awareness and positive brand perceptions. One important note – because people are listening from home, they are actively searching for new digital ways to listen to their favorite radio shows.

The uptick in usage of these media channels doesn’t mean to abandon what you are currently doing. Instead, adding these channels to your strategy if they are not part of it now, will help you continue to reach your target audience in today’s challenging circumstances. Aligning your budgets, creative and media channels with a changed consumer audience can ensure that you are still able to build and maintain connections with the people your products help most.

At Underscore, we began making shifts in our creative and media channel recommendations several months ago. Combined with our nimble, flat business structure, we are here and ready to fully support our clients, their brands and their customers.

Erica Hawthorne // Director, Digital at Underscore Marketing – a worldwide strategic media company providing ROI solutions in the health & wellness, healthcare and pharma space.

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