COVID-19 changes advertising strategies


An advertising student discusses how advertising trends have changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, just over a year ago.

Makala Cox

COVID-19 has added emphasis on providing advertisements digitally, and there have been impacts on how advertisers try to reach and relate to consumers.

According to a study by The Nielsen Company, a media research firm, the pandemic has brought with it an increase in “digital game purchases, streaming video engagement, online ordering and working from home.” The shifts in the global economy and work trends have led to different approaches in advertising. 

“I feel like there has been a big shift in how advertising has been presented on social media,” said Matt Deo, a junior in advertising. “Not only has advertising been shifting digitally, but also, it has been shifting where it’s at digitally.”

He said there is still money going into traditional media, such as newspapers and magazines, but the amount of money advertisers put in different mediums is dependent on the target demographic. 

“In my opinion, I would say that the ages … 16 to 30 are probably the [ages] that shape the culture the most and shape trends,” Deo said.

He explained the age range tends to be especially receptive to advertisements.

“[The age range does not] have preconceived notions on what their values are, so pop culture and media can be something that really influences them and their decision-making,” he said.

The age range Deo provided is a combination of millennials and Generation Z. According to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research organization, millennials are the largest living generation in the United States.

To be characterized as a millennial, one must be born between the years of 1981 to 1996, whereas to be characterized as a member of Generation Z, one must be born between the years 1996 and 2012. Deo notes that members of the age range are “digital natives,” a term used to describe those who have grown up with technology. Typically, people within this age group have intuitive skills to navigate technology. 

Deo said companies in recent years are trying to keep with current digital trends because our generation has grown up with digital media and now have money to spend, so companies are trying to keep up and shift where their information is located. 

He explained he has recently noticed a tendency among advertisements. He says advertisers try to be increasingly “relevant” and try to “focus more on the [digital native] age group.” He says advertising attempts to “relate” to people; the pandemic, he explains, is not only incredibly relevant but also unifying since it has impacted most of the United States population.  

Ads that dominated the quarantine months shifted their scopes to the impacts of COVID-19. Commercials featured masks, remote work and video conferencing and attempted to convey the seemingly universal frustration of the public in their 15-30-45-second time slot. One even went far as to personify 2020 as a woman dating Satan. According to The Nielsen Company, COVID-19 ads peaked in the second quarter of 2020, or the months of April, May and June. 

Advertisers use several different techniques and methods to market to mass audiences. Deo explains a specific method that companies use that may explain recent advertising trends: STP marketing.

“There’s something called segmenting, targeting and positioning,” Deo said. “You divide up a general market into specific categories based on demographics … and also psychological factors, like what they value … what drives their life decisions. And once you divide up your markets, then you can target specific ones, and after that, you can position your brand and your values to … convey the values that you can bring to the table.”

However, during the “peak pandemic” months, many households experienced financial hardships. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in September 2020, a fourth of U.S. adults had trouble keeping up with bills the following six months after the initial COVID-19 outbreak, whereas a third had to draw from their savings or retirement accounts to stay afloat.

Many families tightened their budgets and cut out unnecessary spending money on luxuries, which impacted sales and ad spending.

Deo said it is necessary for companies to continue marketing, especially during an economic crisis. He explained that by doing so, companies are able to hold onto their “market share,” or the percentage of the market that they hold, and that the marketed businesses will be at the forefront of customers’ minds when they are able to buy luxury products again.

However, the term “luxury” can be framed differently in different advertising contexts. Deo explains how some marketing campaigns work.  

“Instead of … having a root problem you need to solve for the consumer and then strategically figuring out how you can best serve that need,” Deo said, “a lot of times what happens is you have a product that is … already there, and then you’re trying to figure out how to persuade the consumer into thinking that it’s [a solution].” 

Deo said it can be done intentionally or unintentionally by advertisers. He provided an example featuring cell phones and explained that having a phone is beneficial but is unnecessary for anyone to replace or update their phone every year. However, advertising campaigns would suggest otherwise. He said what is unique in the COVID-19 climate is that companies are marketing just to stay “afloat.”

Deo said a large portion of American culture is “consumer-oriented.” 

“We really center a lot of things on the products that we buy and status that it can give us,” Deo said. “One of the biggest things that I care a lot now when I buy product is …  innate need and … when I can see the firm that I am buying from shares core values that I value.”

Deo’s sentiments toward his purchases align with the general trend of Generation Z. According to an article on IBM, Gen Z also wants brands to be “transparent, trustworthy, authentic and relevant.” 

For those who are interested in learning more about advertising principles and the social aspects of advertising, Iowa State offers the course ADVRT 230.