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Post COVID-19: life and human connection

We’ve hit a worrying and strange moment in the UK Coronavirus crisis, where talk of “green shoots” and lowered infection rates one day is answered by soaring death rates the next.

At System1 we’ve been running a weekly mood tracker in 12 markets, and people are confused and upset across the world. Our tracker shows how public happiness has dropped, and sadness and fear have risen, as populations go into lockdown. This anxiety is being firmly felt by advertisers too.

According to a survey by the WFA among its members, over 80% of advertisers are deferring their campaigns, and 50% are actively working up new ones. And many, of course, will be putting a hold on advertising spend altogether. Brands are dealing with a situation that changes daily and offering immediate responses. Not just “what can we say to our customers?” but “how can we help?” with changes to product, price and distribution, and there are many admirable examples.

But the long-term hasn’t gone away. Whether it’s months or even years, a new normal will emerge and no doubt a mental and cultural reset will have taken place.

To understand whether people are connecting differently to ads in today’s context, we took 100 pre-Coronavirus ads from the US and UK that first aired in January and February 2020 and retested them, to determine what (if any) shifts in emotional response there had been.

The overall results were reassuring. There is no evidence of a decline in emotional response to ads that were first aired months before the crisis. Ads are connecting with people just as strongly as they did before the crisis. At the fringes, however, something interesting emerges. We see hints of creative styles that might be more successful in a new future.

Ads that are set in the past, that have a strong sense of place and time, cultural references, living characters and dialogue are some of the qualities we’ve found in the ads that are performing better today. An ad for Patak’s sauces, for instance, which is set in the past and describes a family arriving and settling in a new community in Britain, connects better today than it did originally. Super Bowl ads for Doritos (parodying a Western duel) and Amazon (asking what people did before Alexa), also hold up well. These ads are largely set in the past and are able to connect with audiences by playing out in a slightly parallel world; they don’t need to reference the worrying events of today. It’s not surprising that these features should be connecting better today. As I explain in Lemon, published last year by the IPA, they are what the right brain prizes.

The left and right brain don’t do different things; this popular psychology narrative has been debunked. But they do attend to the world in different ways. The left brain is goal-oriented, optimistic, focused and abstracts things from their context – focusing in on things, removing them from context, turning them into signs and symbols, representations of the world. The right brain, however, brings a broad and vigilant attention to bear on the world, is alert to threats, has a wider focus, looking at the relationships between things and people, and appreciating depth, nuance and ambiguity.

The Coronavirus crisis brings right-brained attention to the fore. It makes our individual, short-term goals feel irrelevant and forces us to expand our attention to take in the people around us, our local communities and society. It brings a sense of proportion, responsibility, self-awareness, humility, altruism and spontaneity. It also reminds us, in our isolation, of the humanity that is so important to us.

If there is a long-term legacy of this crisis, it may lie in this attentional shift, reversing a decades-long tilt towards left-brained attention (as described in Lemon). The advertising that held sway before the crisis - flat, devitalised and abstract, reliant on words (spoken and on-screen) and drained of context - was already far less effective than more right-brained creative work. And today, ads that focus on things, that are self-conscious, reliant on words and that are highly rhythmic are indeed showing signs of connecting less well.

In a post-COVID-19 world, advertising which is full of life and human connection will be what thrives in its place.