2019 MedAdNews Awards Agency of the Year Finalist

You’ve probably received about 100 multi-paragraphed emails on COVID-19. Unlike those, hopefully this is actually valuable.

After watching several hundred COVID-19-related ads, I’ve noticed a few notable trends.

  • Tone is everything
  • Belonging, connectedness, and generosity are common emotions that seem to work well
  • In times of uncertainty, herd safety dominates, and differentiation gets lost

In light of what is going on right now (or as generic COVID-19 ads would call it “these uncertain times”), I can’t stress enough that tone in marketing communications is everything. If you miss the mark here, your advertisement comes off as, at best, generic, and at worst, clueless, opportunistic, and insensitive. Keep in mind that people may be overwhelmed by what is going on in the world and interruption communications may be the last thing they want to see. On the other hand, done right (see below), you can make ads that truly resonate with the moment.

In a time of isolation, two of the most common emotions being expressed are, perhaps not surprisingly, belonging and connectedness – whether that be on the small scale with something like Uncle Ben’s, or on the large scale with national or global unity. Also, a refreshing welcome is generosity, thankfulness, and true human kindness (see Nike, Dove, Live Nation, and Sam’s Club below). In spite of everything going on in the world, I’ve been impressed with the creativity, inventiveness, and ingenuity in our industry, whether it be in great ads or interesting uses of web conferencing (I’m looking at you SOUND tiny hat happy hour, Trivia Night, and SOUND Shutterbugs).

Lastly, the vast majority of ads I watched were generic, interchangeable, paint-by-number fluff. For me, this adds insult to injury of wrong tone – you have not only offended me, but you’ve also wasted my time. Is this trend driven by fear of offense? Or larger herd behavior dynamics related to uncertainty that drive humans to fit in with the crowd rather than standing out from it? For me, unless you are differentiating and standing out, you are wasting your money and committing one of the cardinal sins of advertising: being forgettable.

To some extent, the lessons of COVID-19 advertising are lessons that could be applied to principles of good advertising in regular times. Deeply understand your customer. Find stuff that connects with them and resonates. Find something unique to say. Provide value (education, awareness, entertainment, etc). Do something amazing for a smaller audience with high need that stands out and provides value rather than a lot of generic crap for everyone.


  1. Nike “Play for the World” – Nike always gets me with these swelling piano and violin tracks. Makes me want to stand up and start chanting “Rudy, Rudy, Rudy!” I love the mid-ad tagline and mixture of black and white photography featuring sponsored athletes blended with in-home user-generated content. 
  2. Uncle Ben’s “Special Guests” – Most COVID-19-related advertising has been complete and utter crap that is doing a great job at featuring stock art, generic feelings, and somber piano music, but a terrible job at selling product and conveying real human emotion (see incredible compilation here, and other ads here and here for examples of what I think bad looks like). On the other hand, this Uncle Ben’s rice ad (I can’t believe I just typed that) actually does a decent job showcasing and contextualizing a product in the context of an isolation narrative. Plus bonus points for not playing to gender stereotypes showing the dad giving his daughter ballet lessons and cooking.
  3. Dove “Courage is Beautiful” – Dove’s been running different “Real Beauty” ads for over a decade now. I think this is a really smart extension of the campaign to showcase the beauty of courage in the ugliness of the impact of the disease. One of the trends I’m happy to see across this advertising is the recognition of healthcare providers as true heroes who are putting themselves in harm’s way to help others.
  4. Live Nation “Crew Nation” – I’ll start by stating I’m no fan of Live Nation. They charge absurd fees to process tickets and are currently bilking customers who are holding tickets to shows that were cancelled due to COVID-19. Much like 1-ply toilet paper, when you need them, they’re a necessary evil. That being said, solid ad with a great soundtrack and excellent cause. Love me some Alabama Shakes and can’t wait until it’s safe to go back to concerts again.
  5. Sam’s Club – “Retail Heroes” – Sam’s Club was way out ahead of what has now become cliched advertising trope that thanks all of the retail workers who are putting themselves on the frontlines and helping us survive through this crisis. Well done and also great soundtrack.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways regarding advertising in the time of COVID-19. Leave them in the comments or send me a message.

If you need any SOUND thinking on how your brand can navigate the surreal healthcare advertising environment we’re living in, shoot me an email (nick.rhodin@sound-hc.com).

Hope you are staying safe and staying sane.

Written by Nick Rhodin

Managing Partner,
Executive Director of Strategic Planning

Nick is devoted to discovering and leveraging core customer insights to drive brand strategy development.

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