COVID-19, consumers and advertising

The “social distancing” causes, among other things, the rethinking of purchase habits. It is not just a matter of stop spending to survive the current economic crisis. The point is changing priorities and attitude towards objectively useless goods, regardless of the perceived “needs”.

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities,” Oscar Wilde wrote not long ago, but this age is hopefully over. Living secluded shows that our belongings are mostly sufficient to meet daily needs. The absence of social opportunities makes it useless flashing the latest smartphone. The need to work remotely focuses attention on the tools that allow us to do it better, more than on other “compulsive shopping” distractions. We realize first-hand, in other words, how much the superfluous weighs in our lives and how much and what we can do with fewer things.

I do not believe that when we return free, the world lives like a Franciscan monastery. However, I hope that it finally learn the importance of responsible purchasing. And this is not only true for people but also – and above all – for companies and the financial system because responsibility also concerns production and the direct sales strategy to encourage indiscriminate purchasing.

I’m not talking about the extremist rhetoric against “logos”. Nor I’m talking about the “environmental conscience” satisfied by a few loudly shouting strolls in the centre of Milan, followed by a ride on a petrol-fuelled moped to meet other “environmentally-concerned” friends downtown “enjoying” a plastic-tasting sandwich. I am referring, instead, to conscious management of what we “need” to do “things”: do I need a Maserati if I don’t go beyond the supermarket? Sure, in the world of consumers, there is also the satisfaction of individual needs that go beyond the simple “means-to-ends” relationship that measures the usefulness of an object. However, there is a difference between deciding to buy something with an awareness of the added value it brings to our person, and buy for the sake of doing it.

Advertising is a handy tool to measure how social groups’ behaviours change – if they change.

Today, many advertising agencies have pragmatically moved the product to the background, accentuating messages of hope, optimism and confidence in “heroes”. They have, in other words, unhooked the relationship between “storytelling” and “induction to purchase”, replacing it with the relationship between product and empathy.

This communication strategy makes the films conceived before COVID-19 appear even odder. They exalt the superfluous, propose to “buy today and pay tomorrow” or wink at the unexpressed frustrations of the average Joe. When you look at them, you get a feeling of strangeness, as if suddenly that spot that seemed tailor-made for you now speaks to someone else.

“You can’t bore people into buying you product, you can only interest them into buying it” warned David Ogilvy. And the challenge of post-COVID-19 communication commands just that: talking to people rather than treating them like lemons to be squeezed because, by now, there is no more juice left.

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