May 15th, 2020

Is a Sense of Sameness Plaguing COVID-19 Ads?


Ace Metrix

By now, we’ve all seen at least one…hundred ads addressing the C-word. It all started a little over nine weeks ago with “A St. Patrick’s Day Message from Guinness” and has since transpired into a brand-apalooza with empathetic messages coming from each industry. It didn’t take long before every one of these ads were mocked as sounding exactly the same

That one word — every — made us wonder: is this sense of sameness as widespread as COVID-19 itself? Is it just a small subset of ads following the cliche formula and ruining the reputation of the rest? Or is an ad industry-insider once again pointing out what wasn’t obvious to the average US consumer?

An initial look at all 497 (!) coronavirus ad scores through May 9th tells us that despite suspicions of sameness, variation in performance clearly indicates that brands are using different strategies — some that work with viewers and some that don’t:

Scatterplot: All COVId-19 Ad Ace Scores up to May 9th, 2020

As new creative volume is starting to wane, we are also measuring a widening of scores in recent weeks. Thirty-percent of these ads have scored between 600 and 650, however it now seems to be more difficult to achieve this level in recent weeks. 

Across all COVID-19 ads, Relevance (+11% over one-year all-industry norm) and Likeability (+7%) are still the strongest components. Attention, Watchability and Desire norms are now on par with one-year all-industry ads suggesting the topic alone is not enough to pique viewers’ interest:

Average Weekly Ace Score for COVID-19 Ads

Despite scores trending towards the all-industry norm, there is still an appetite for brands to address the pandemic. The average breaking COVID-19 ad is significantly out-performing recent ads that dodge the topic. On top of that, a breaking ad on May 6th spot broke into the 700s proving it is possible to stand out, even nine weeks into the conversation.

Tired Terminology

Early on we detected monotonous terms like “challenging times” and “uncertain times” (the same ones being mocked) and warned that they were getting old quickly with 13% of COVID-19 ads at the time (less than three weeks into pandemic advertising) using one of these two phrases. To make matters worse, they were also underperforming compared to other pandemic-response ads. 

A Sense of Exploitation

Brands’ COVID-19 responses are empowering viewers more often than any other cultural phenomenon in the past decade. Historically, only 12.5% of ads have ever scored on our Empower metric, which measures the positive impact of purpose-driven advertising. That number skyrockets to 75% among COVID-19 ads, which speaks to the widespread consequences of the disease itself as well as the significance of brands’ efforts.

Percent of COVID-19 Ads with Signal

On the opposite side of the cultural spectrum, Exploit levels started out around norm for this group of ads in the first few weeks. However, beginning the week of April 14th – 20th, more ads were scoring on Exploit. Not only were there more, but the average strength of Exploit signal increased and has mostly remained at the same level ever since. This indicates viewers have increasingly grown weary of brands who seemingly jumped on the COVID-19 bandwagon with disingenuous (possibly generic) ads.

“Thank You”/ tribute-themes are becoming more common among the list of ads with Exploit signal. Interestingly, they typically score well on quantitative measures and generate positive emotions among viewers. Moreso, their Empower scores outweigh Exploit as most acknowledge and appreciate the sentiment and respectful message.

However, enough viewers raise concern that the message is insincere, setting off Exploit and sometimes our But metric (indicating internal conflict). A number of those comments explicitly call out the similarities among “Thank You” ads:

“you could tell it was about the people on the front lines in applauding them for what they do, and later Mc Donalds logo shows up? It was ok but made it seem like it would go with some other company.” Male 50+

“I get the message it’s really good for the company. But man im so sick of messaging about COVID like this” Female 21-35

“It’s a good ad, but now everyone is getting tired of this type of an ad.” Male 50+

“I’m getting sick of hearing about “the heroes.” I’d rather you just talk about coffee and donuts.” Male 21-35

“I am a first responder but I don’t like coffee and it seems like everyone is trying to use the pandemic as a sales gimmick” Male 50+

Another category of Exploitative ads correlates with an increasing presence of negative emotions like Inappropriate, WTF and Awful. Awful reactions often stem from poor execution that falls flat while WTF indicates confusion. Some of these COVID-19 ads are clear cash-grabs with empty-phrases like “we’re here to help,” followed by an irrelevant sales pitch. Among others, viewer comments reveal that a lack of originality and a sense of insincerity are to blame:

“nothing special, showing young people social distancing in the city” Male 50+

“It is okay. Nothing exciting. I’d probably ignore it on TV. Makes me feel they are taking advantage of the pandemic to advertise.” Female 50+

“This is typical signaling by a company to capitalize on the Covid pandemic.” Male 36-49

Percent of COVID-19 Ads with Signal Per Week: Inappropriate, WTF, Awful

Opportunity Still Exists

Opportunity still exists for brands to connect with consumers using this type of messaging. Breaking the “sameness” mold requires creativity, but it can certainly be done.

Just last week (May 6th), Unilever came out with a spot that achieved a striking 707 Ace Score (20% above COVID-19 norms). Like several pandemic-response ads before it, “Essential Supplies” packed an emotional punch, scoring on seven emotional metrics (Heartfelt, Inspiring, Adtastic) as well as Empower. Unilever also followed our rules of thumb with their spot: be specific – and show, don’t tell, what you’re doing differently or to help.

“Essential Supplies” steered clear of the widely mocked piano music, instead opting for Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” This song choice stood out enough that 13% of respondents named it the Single Best Thing about the ad beating the Music element’s 5% norm among COVID-19 ads.

While tribute ads are starting to blend together, some advertisers — like Sports United — are still finding ways to put an original spin on the message. The Real Heroes Project from Sports United also managed to break the mold of the “thank you ad” with their set of spots featuring professional athletes from across the spectrum of sports. Athletes changed their names on their jerseys to those of healthcare workers. What seemed to set this ad apart from the stock footage of people clapping was the inclusion of real workers. Some of the athletes acknowledged knowing the doctors, nurses and other professionals – and their sincerity came through:

“Awesome to see professional athletes of all stripes turn the tables on adulation for a change and shine the spotlight on frontline workers, heartfelt sentiment is something all of those staying home can share by thanking those in the frontline, actually seeing the name change from all athletes made this a shared experience” Male 36-49

“Such a sweet message, I actually teared up. I didn’t recognize the names but I felt the genuine feeling behind the motivations of the people in the commercial and I really appreciate people taking the time to celebrate healthcare workers everywhere” Female 16-20

Dabbling in Funny

Slowly but surely, we’re seeing brands make a return to humor with their COVID-19 advertising. Humor and quirkiness are polarizing even in non-pandemic times, but the argument can (and has been) made that we need more lighthearted entertainment, even from advertising, during these heavy times. 

Percent of COVID-19 Ads with Signal Per Week: Funny & Quirky

Know what you’re getting into, though: 30% of COVID-19 ads that hit on our Funny metric also came with some level of Exploit (only 22% of non-COVID-19 ads have that pairing). Humor doesn’t necessarily set these ads apart in terms of effectiveness, with the average Ace Score around norm for COVID-19 ads. The case is worse for Quirky (all, except one, also had Funny signal), scoring 19% below norm.

Bulleit Bourbon pulled off a humorous spot while weaving in staying at home with “New Drinking Buddies.” The spot cleverly shows all the different items in a home that have a face, thus, these objects are your new, stay at home drinking buddies. Humor fell into the solid category among gen pop audiences, putting it in the top three of coronavirus ads to date. 

Among Spirits Drinkers, the ad also performed well, pairing a nice dose of Ingenious with the slightly Quirky humor:

Ace Metrix Emo Profile (Spirit Drinkers):Bulleit Bourbon "New Drinking Buddies"

After All That…

Even though only a small portion of viewers explicitly called out a sense of sameness among some ads, there are no signs that gen pop consumers are worn out from COVID-19 messaging. Instead, brands approaching the topic need to create fresh, innovative and original work to stand out among the crowd. Let’s not forget that was the case for every ad before the pandemic. On top of that, there are still plenty of ads not talking about it. Only 42% of those we’ve tested since March 13th address it in some manner.


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