Marketing Morals in a Time of Crisis

Marketing Morals

Courtney Devereux explores the ethics of marketing in a Lockdown, and gets a gauge for how our moral compasses may have shifted when it comes to advertising in this new Covid-19 reality.


At the start of Lockdown, The Warehouse Group announced that they were essential and would remain open. This resulted in public backlash from many Kiwis who felt it was wrong for them to do so. After a petition with over 52,000 signatures and a Government warning, the Group announced that it would only open online and highlighted the cautious measures it would take to ensure staff safety. However, the damage had already been done.

Early on, consumers had developed a clear idea of their moral expectations of brands during life in Lockdown. Results of a Pure Profile survey of New Zealanders appetite for advertising during this period further reinforced this. Of the 800 Kiwis surveyed, 76.4 percent said that while they still wanted to hear from brands, they wanted to hear about what they were doing to help customers. In addition, 83 percent of responders said ‘normal’ advertising wasn’t something they wanted or deemed acceptable at that moment. 

For the most part, marketers and agencies took this sentiment (warning) as a call to rise above during Alert Level 4. Not only did they continue to produce innovative, responsible brand messaging, but they sold what the people of New Zealand wanted, and needed: messages of hope and unity. Brands had to adapt their messages to communicate their moral standings to consumers as a means of remaining relevant in a time when their products and services were no longer first thought. They did this by adopting charities, fostering business unity and offering advice and expertise in the form of workshops and innovative information services. 

Others simply advertised to survive – pushing their brand as a means of remaining relevant and viable during a difficult time. While it may not have sat well with the morality of many Kiwis, was this ethical? Well that depends on your interpretation (see our ethical theories guide on page 23). The point is, advertising during times of crisis isn’t all black or white, and relies on marketers and brands being heavily conscious of the market that they’re in and responding in an appropriate way. 

Ethics vs. Morals

Ben Fahy, former editorial director for Bauer Media, who was hyper-aware of the messages that came out of Lockdown, says that advertising is a signal to the market about where your strengths are. “In many cases, it was obvious to see now that places are closed, that strength wasn’t there. Stopping advertising can have a lot of drawbacks. But a few of those companies who legitimately showed their charitable sides by putting money into some of the causes that need help, will long stick in the minds of consumers in a good way,” he says.

Although, Fahy suggests that when it comes to ethical marketing during times such as this, the lines are blurred. Between doing what needs to be done for survival and what should be done for the greater good. “Yes, many brands have adapted their messages to communicate their moral standings to consumers, but there is also the task of trying to survive in any way possible – and whether this is ethically okay as it benefits the greater good. Keeping jobs, moving the economy forward,” he says.

He adds that marketers and creative agencies who know their clients will know what is acceptable and what isn’t, as knowing how to resonate with consumers can be done carefully if that trust is already there. “Marketers have a good idea about what they can and can’t get away with, and what they’ve been doing for clients in the past often dictates that. For example, FCB’s Stickman could get away with doing a humour-based campaign at the moment, but if ANZ tried to do it, it wouldn’t strike the same response.”

Damon Stapleton, regional chief creative officer at DDB, says consumers are savvy when it comes to buying into messages, especially in a highly sensitive time. He says the first few weeks of Lockdown were a moral test for both DDB and the clients they were trying to help navigate these new, very shark-infested waters.

“We just had to be human beings for a second and take a breath while realising how much of a shock this would be for everyone. There was a period of about a week or two where there was a lot of meetings going on in terms of how do we respond, what’s the right way to respond, should we even respond? We had a range of clients with so many different capabilities, so there was that moment in time where everyone had to get their bearings and figure out what forward looked like.” 

Stapleton says that the morality of advertising is a question of what you’re doing at that moment to benefit yourself and the masses, which in this stance would be ruled by social justice and social contract theory.

“A brand is a promise, it’s not always about selling. It can be about doing or hoping, and you can see that in the way brands have changed their communication. As an agency, our responsibility is to try and help brands grow because that keeps people in jobs. Of course, we want to advertise because that’s what we do, but I think the best thing we can do with our skills at the moment is to keep people employed.” 

All ethical standings circle back to theories that define how we view the world. Utilitarianism, for example, would suggest that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. So a business advertising non-essentials which in turn may keep their hundreds of workers employed would be considered ethical. 

Stapleton makes the argument that the terms essential and non-essential bring in more grey space into the area, especially as we enter a second economic crisis where financially businesses will be hit even harder. 

“On one hand you have a humanitarian crisis, and on the other, you have a global financial crisis. You could probably say that advertising is the strange bridge between the two. The question will remain when do we go back to normal? Is it a good idea to say absolutely nothing as a brand or businesses and just die? It feels like every single question as it relates to the morals surrounding advertisings during a pandemic comes down to timing. And some people will get it right, and some people will get it wrong.

“I think that on the one hand, the most responsible thing an advertising agency can do is to try and keep the client in a positive space. What we can do is not just communication. Sometimes it’s solving business problems. Sometimes it’s looking at things from a different perspective, but I think at the end of the day, you have to be aware of your market and how they’re going to respond.”

There is a connectedness in New Zealand that Stapleton says is unique, as our community will call out brands for being “full of it” if their marketing or message seems disingenuous or goes against our current moral standpoint.

“The issue is, as soon as you start questioning or debating on if advertising is ethically right, then you start getting into the ethics of capitalism. And that, is a separate conversation. I believe that people will listen to you if you give them something. If you connect with them in the right way, they’ll give you their most precious commodity which is time. However, when it comes to Covid-19 and pandemic marketing, it relies on how useful you are as a brand to the wider community.”

Tone It Down

Phil Clemas, CEO of OOH company Lumo agrees saying that tone, product, and placement all weigh in on whether a brand’s messaging sits well with our morals and wider ethics. 

“I think there are some examples where the message was very appropriate. But there have been some examples where it’s been naive or a little ignorant and very self-centred. I think it’s those sorts of messages that are most disappointing when it’s so obvious that what you’re doing is self-serving rather than genuinely thinking about the goodwill of people out there. Sometimes it’s better just to shut up, be quiet for a bit. Preserve your thoughts and then come out when you have something genuine to offer.”

Many brands opted for PSA-style messaging around the importance of social distancing. The “we’re here for you” style ad has become common for most large international brands that some would agree don’t need to say anything at all. Internationally we’ve seen Nike and Guinness encourage social distancing. Jack Daniel’s was quick off the mark with a spot that reflected the realities of social distancing, showing friends and families hanging out over video chats. The slow piano music and heritage gloats are a quick distraction from the reality of the pandemic. 

Of all the categories of crisis-specific advertising, Support is the one marketers can use to hide behind emotional manipulation and easy gestures.

“Those are the most disingenuous ads,” says Clemas. “There are a few brands that believe that message, but it has that tinge of virtual signalling in my opinion. These companies want to be seen as a good corporate citizen without actually going out and doing stuff that means something to them or their consumers.” 

Locally, out of the brands that promoted their services during the Lockdown; Les Mills online classes, MyFoodBag giving food parcels to at-risk families, Pak’nSave promising job security and Good George Brewery producing hand sanitizer to name a few, 60-79 percent of Pure Profile survey responders thought they made a meaningful difference. While only 21 percent thought the same of Rebel Sports’ TVC about supporting social distancing. 

Clemas believes that the good deeds of a company should be done through actions as opposed to having to put it up on a billboard, television, or in a newspaper. Yet he doesn’t believe there is a moral expectation that companies shouldn’t be advertising in or around a pandemic. “Advertising is a great way to convey information. And not only about selling, but about providing information about what I can do and can’t do, and where I get the stuff that I’m after. Citizens still need that information even in a pandemic.”

Changing Moral Compass 

As life continues in this new post-Lockdown Covid-19 world, Clemas makes the point that advertising will benefit now that the general consumer is sick of hearing what they need to purchase, and are keen to go back to hearing about what they want to purchase. However, he warns the market will be sensitive for some time. “I think marketers need to be subtle about getting back into the landscape. If clients allow agencies to think about how best to message what is it they want to say in the content of the current pandemic mindset, that would be the smartest move.”

The Colmar Brunton 2020 Corporate Reputation Report showed that consumers still connected with local brands who have shown resilience during the Covid-19 crisis mostly due to charitable acts. Wright Communications’ managing director Nikki Wright says the polling during Covid-19 showed many top-performing brands included a strong sense of purpose, good leadership, fairness, and responsibility to citizens and trust that brands would behave in a way that alleviates public anxiety.

“Companies who do the right thing by the public and tell their stories well have a resilience that enables them to ride out occasional setbacks and bad news. Conversely, companies that don’t constantly communicate how they’re dealing with their issues find their reputations suffer,” Wright says.

Stapleton says how the landscape has changed to meet these new consumer expectations has been interesting, yet he acknowledges how difficult it will be for brands to find their ‘new normal’ and still connect with consumers in the way they find acceptable due to new ethical standards.

“There are ads on TV now that say ‘shot before Covid-19’ on them. So that brings in this social expectation that you can only make ads where people are clearly two metres apart. There will be a very weird transition period where you will have to think about whether people want ads to be normal? Or do, they want ads that reflect the reality we’re in now,” Stapleton says.

A common mistake that marketers may make at this time is to forget that brands don’t act in a vacuum but a complex, competitive space. This means that the outcome of how the consumer reacts is out of your control. Therefore, the only way to avoid consequences and act ethically is to make the decision based on what the decision-maker knows, and could have known, at the time. The toughest thing about morality is that it differs from person to person, no two people will ever have the same moral outlook of what is right and what is wrong. So it comes down to brands and marketers being acutely aware of their market.

Morality and marketing go hand-in-hand in that regard. They both have a range of different theories about what would best benefit the masses, both determine the way many individuals operate day-to-day, neither can be ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, but both can be interpreted in different ways by the individual. 


This article was originally published in the NZ Marketing supplement ‘Marketing in Lockdown’. To purchase a copy of the supplement, click here.

Courtney Devereux

About Courtney Devereux

Courtney Devereux is Editor of StopPress.co.nz.

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