April 24th, 2020

Gen Z is the Toughest Audience for COVID-19 Ads. Here’s What Works with Them:


Ace Metrix

The youngest segment of viewers we test ads with, ages 16-20, are the least receptive towards COVID-19 advertising with an Ace Score norm 5% below the Gen Pop COVID-19 average. That score is 16% greater than the age group’s 90 day all-industry norm (COVID & non-COVID) so Gen Z is still more receptive to pandemic ads — for the time being.

Across all ages, we’re already measuring a dip in overall Ace Score norms for COVID-19 ads. That drop was most significant among the youngest viewers:


However, Gen Z is still responding better to COVID-19 ads in April than non-pandemic ads despite the decline in norms. To uncover what 16-20 year olds are connecting with, we analyzed ads where this age group had higher gap-to-COVID-19 norms versus the older cohorts. Important to note that some of those ads aired as recently as last week, so there’s still hope for connecting with this audience.

Here are some trends among the COVID-19 ads that worked well with these youngsters:

Light-Hearted Laughs

Among 16-20 year olds, five of the seventeen ads we analyzed scored on our Funny metric — albeit low signal. Humor is historically one of the most common emotions we’ve measured in ads (about 25%) among a Gen Pop audience, but very few COVID-19 spots have dared to go there (for good reason). Not to mention, the rate of humor has also dropped significantly across all ads in recent weeks as brands are paralyzed by the fear of coming off as tone deaf during a particularly sensitive time:

Pre-coronavirus, Creative Digital Agency released a Gen Z Consumer Report where 60% of respondents agreed that they wanted to see more humorous types of ads. However, going for laughs isn’t something just any brand can (or should) do during this time. Those that connected in such a manner had years of advertising experience with humor. Take Burger King: 86% of its ads from the past two years scored on Funny with our 16-20 year old audience.

Burger King’s “Stay Home of the Whopper,” only scored significantly above COVID-19 norms with this youngest segment (it performed around norm for those ages 21-35 and 36-49). The humor wasn’t the only element that worked for “Stay Home of the Whopper.” Burger King’s message focused on why it was important to stay home (in line with another key point for this age segment about “promoting safe practices” further below) and informed viewers about its charitable effort to feed frontline workers for free (something we’ve acknowledged in previous COVID-19 coverage).

While humor wasn’t the only theme, viewer verbatim comments suggest it was an effective method for entertaining 16-20 year olds in a relevant manner that didn’t take away from the thoughtful message:

“I love this ad all around. I love the goofy humor and the “couch-potatriot” line; that made me laugh. I like how they still held a serious note by thanking the doctors and nurses working for our safety. The epic music set a perfect scene. It definitely made me want to buy from Burger King after I saw it. I can’t find anything to criticize about this ad. Well done.” – Male

“Telling people to stay home and order delivery is very important and it was done in a semi-comedic fashion.” – Female

“I like how the advertisement is humorous while getting a message across at the same time.” – Male

“Very funny, but shows importance to those that still do their activities outside.” – Male

User-Generated Content

Over half of the ads that scored particularly well with 16-20 year olds featured user-generated content, like home-video style scenes or viral video clips. This gravitation towards realness isn’t surprising considering Gen Z’s attitudes about brands and advertising. In a study of Gen Z consumers, 84% trusted a company more if they used actual customers and another report found two-thirds of this demographic preferred ads showcasing someone that looked like them.

Gen Z’s appreciation for real, authentic scenes comes through in their verbatims from some of the seventeen ads we analyzed:

“I little long but an amazing message, portrayed wonderfully by real people and real questions all to support unity” – Female (Google’s “Thank You Healthcare Workers”)

“I like the message of staying at home, but connecting with friends and family. It makes the NFL players feel more human.” – Male (NFL “Stay Home Stay Safe”)

“I really like the ad and seeing all these famous players dealing with this like anyone else. I also like how in the videos they took, the backgrounds were pretty neutral. Some celebrities have made videos like this but they have their giant pool or huge house in the background and it’s a little off putting.” – Female (NBA “Together Love”)

“I like all of the “normal” people that are shown in the video and the message that they’re trying to send. Even though we are in trying times, we are all united and can fight through this if we stick together and are united.” – Female (Facebook’s “We’re Never Lost If We can Find Each Other”)

“You feel very connected to the ad, and it had amazing visuals.” – Male (Facebook’s “We’re Never Lost If We can Find Each Other”)

“I liked the overall ad and also liked that it included your everyday employees. I also liked the message that it stands for, especially during these difficult times.” – Female (Domino’s “We’re Hiring”)

Uplifting Tones

Ads don’t have to deliver powerful, emotive storytelling to uplift the spirits of 16-20 year olds. The more light-hearted ads with humorous tones also generated this response in some:

“This commercial is good and very helpful in times like this, it makes me feel a lot more positive about things going on right now.” – Female (Pizza Hut “Comfort Food”)

“i really liked this ad, it was uplifting, and it takes into account the current issue in the world” – Female (Taco Bell “Home Favorites”)

“The use of the current global situation was used very well, good way to market while uplifting spirits” – Female (Taco Bell “Home Favorites”)

“The music was upbeat and positive and the free taco is a great way to reel in customers.” – Female (Taco Bell “Taco Time”)

For brands going the more empowering/storytelling route, Facebook’s “We’re Never Lost If We Can Find Each Other” offers us a perfect example of how much an uplifting tone can impact 16-20 year old viewers.

Looking at our Trace measure below, which tracks viewer resonance with ad content on a second-by-second basis, the first half of Facebook’s ad generated low levels of engagement with its somber mood. But right as the narrator’s message shifts to a more encouraging tone (starting with the word “smile” at 0:46 — the red line) positive interest jumps among 16-20 year olds and stays at a higher level throughout the rest of the ad:

Ace Metrix Trace Chart for Facebook's ad: "We're never lost if we can find each other"

This reaction to the transition in tone came through in their viewer verbatim comments as well:

“[…]This ad started off sad, showing all the fear and panic in the world, showing the struggle and sick and it was a little sad. However, once it started to show the acts of kindness and the people smiling, and people laughing and being happy, it made me so happy. It made me happy to see others happy, and that everyone is in this together. It also made me happy to see how hard people are fighting to beat this, and how everyone is coming together to help anybody who needs it. This message gave me a lot of hope and a sense of calm, as in everything will be okay.” Female

“heart wrenching at first but then uplifting. loved it.” Female

“I think that it got stronger as you watched. At the start it was boring, but towards the middle and end it got more emotional and interesting.” Male

“It is a very heartwarming message to appreciate the resilience and positivity in people during such scary and trying times. The company is clearly very socially aware.” Female

Promoting Safe Practices

In addition to keeping things positive, 16-20 year olds responded well to ads encouraging safe practices during the pandemic, whether explicitly stated or portrayed through visuals. Two ads from Amazon (“Safety First” & “What We Can”) were among those that made a greater splash with this audience than their older counterparts. Both spots were pretty similar in that they directly explained what safety measures the company is taking to protect its employees as well as its customers.

AceMetrix Ace Scores Norms Chart Ages Amazon COVID19 ads
*In the Gap-to-COVID19 norm chart above, anything outside the gray area is significantly above/below the norm

Another three were from professional sports leagues (NFL & NBA), all of which featured famous athletes encouraging togetherness and sharing how they’re following social distancing guidelines, like staying at home. Their Messages, which came out as the Single Best Thing about each ad, and authentic feel contributed to strong scores from viewers ages 16-20. All three even ranked in the top ten most Likeable of COVID-19 ads with this audience.

On top of that, young viewers even applauded ads where the brand didn’t explicitly encourage safety but portrayed it subtly in visuals, like the following verbatims about Taco Bell’s “Home Favorite”:

“I liked how the ad promoted social distancing by showing clips of people eating Taco Bell at home; however, it made it seem like Taco Bell didn’t have the budget for a more involved/detailed ad.” – Female

“i like the fact that everyone was eating at home cause of the new situations happening” – Female

“It was nice they were advertising not getting out of your car and I liked the videos of people at home.” – Female

Our data shows Gen Zers are following social distancing orders just as well as older respondents and therefore relate towards this type of ad content. After all, not all 16-20 year olds are on “spring-break-the-rules”:

No single trend is the golden ticket for success with these viewers. Instead, all of the ads analyzed employed a combination of those above as well as the takeaways we detailed in an earlier blog in order to beat COVID-19 norms.


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