Prabhakar Mundkur
Guest Article

Advertising in times of Coronavirus

While happenings around us inspire advertising, a timely and promising opportunity might blur the line between the dos and don'ts of the job.

As the Coronavirus pandemic accelerates and becomes top-of-mind for most people, opportunistic marketers are looking at how to take advantage of the situation to promote their products. As a result, opportunistic product advertising is passing off as social service.

The latest ad that I came across in social media was from Godrej for its brand Protekt India and Mr. Magic Handwash. The ad depicts children in a playground situation and washing their hands. First of all, the ad completely ignores one of the primary cautions being widely circulated for preventive measures against Coronavirus, which is social distancing. Not an easy term for everyone to understand. But while leveraging the emotional value of children, the ad blatantly goes against even the Advertising Standards Council of India's Code 3.2, which states:

"Advertisements addressed to minors shall not contain anything, whether in illustration or otherwise, which might result in their physical mental or moral harm or which exploits their vulnerability."

3.2 (b) of the Code states:

“Should not feature dangerous or hazardous acts, which are likely to encourage minors to emulate such acts in a manner which could cause harm or injury.”

In this case, the harm or injury is the Coronavirus. All preventive measures highlight the importance of not being in socially close situations. And this ad does just that, unfortunately, (it) promotes socially close situations. While it is said that children are less vulnerable, India reported its first case of an infected three-year-old in the March 17 issue of the Times of India.

At one level, I feel that there might be no intent to create misleading advertising from the marketer or the advertising agency. Often, I feel that ads like these are created because marketers and ad agencies have not educated themselves well enough on the pandemic.

Let’s take another ad released by Domino's yesterday on Zero Contact Delivery. In many ways, this ad makes sense. Community guidelines are asking people to refrain from taking delivery at their doorsteps from couriers for fear of contamination. In fact, the recommendation for gated communities and societies is that one should ask for couriers to leave their packages at the reception/help desk/security. The ad also asks the consumer to choose Zero Contact Delivery on its app.

Domino's print ad
Domino's print ad

Baba Ramdev’s recommendation for people to do Surya Namaskar, Pranayam and Kapal Bhati is not objectionable, since yoga can build overall health and resistance to disease. However, the claim that the ayurvedic herb Giloy (Tinospora Cordifolia) will act against COVID-19 might be a little more contentious.

What might be completely misleading are the various ads and interviews claiming cow products prevent Coronavirus. These claims seem to be completely unsubstantiated. Some ads even carry (feature) our various ministers, giving a lot of credibility to the advertisement.

Another digital ad from Godrej for Mr. Magic seemed to claim “Haath dhokar, virus ka darr karo choo mantar”. Again, it is a well-known fact that even antibiotics don’t kill viruses. So, a claim, which, of course, is cleverly couched in weasel words, is still misleading.

Godrej Protekt
Godrej Protekt
Political ad
Political ad

When I put up these ads as social media posts on Facebook, noted adman Bharat Dabholkar said, “Even commercial advertising has to show some social responsibility.”

Priyadarshini Narendra, a marketing expert, said, “Also that thing of Coronavirus ka darr choo mantar – not just by washing hands. Very misleading advertising."

Noted marketer Hindustan Unilever seemed to have changed its strategy over the last few days. While its original ad on Lifebuoy seemed bold enough to claim “Prevent the spread of Coronavirus”, it seems to have got wise to increasing criticism from the public on companies unfairly leveraging Coronavirus to promote their brands. Its follow-up ad had the headline “This is not an ad for Lifebuoy. This is a public service message." However, this might not have helped to stop the criticism.

Lifebuoy print ad
Lifebuoy print ad

So, how should advertisers design advertising in these troubled times? First of all, I think, there is a need for companies to be brutally honest with themselves. Are they just leveraging one the most dangerous pandemics the world has seen in a long time, or do they really have good intentions of spreading preventive measures to the public? If it is the latter, it is likely to show in the advertising.

But certainly, marketers and advertising people need to understand Coronavirus much better. Until there is nothing else they need to know, before putting pen to paper. Ogilvy once said, “Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.” He meant, do your homework and know the consumer in detail. The ASCI Code of Conduct would surely be an excellent guide and it is available on https://learning.ascionline.org/asci-advertising-code/.