Advertising hasn’t come to grips with a changing world

Innocean's Norman Melamed on how to reflect the waves of crises consumers still face, while staying optimistic.

By Norman Melamed

On Jan. 6, the New York Times reported that six former advisers to President Biden, all well-known names in American medicine, suggested the administration take a broader view of the pandemic by stepping back and recognizing that COVID-19 is here to stay.

It is undeniably difficult to maintain optimism in the face of global events we have little control over. Government lockdowns “to manage the spread”, a messy rollout of vaccinations, children, parents, and teachers struggling with a last-minute return to remote learning, are just a few of the challenges we find ourselves facing in a once in a century global pandemic.

Add to this climate change, economic stressors (we have still not fully healed from the Great Recession of 2008), an opioid epidemic, and personal and social mental health issues arising from all the above, and it seems we are facing a perfect storm.

I would argue the advertising industry has yet to come to grips with this.

Facing a “new reality,” again

In the beginning of the pandemic, marketers focused on messaging about how “we are all in this together” and appreciation of front-line workers. Nearly two years on, there is a huge gap between the real-world situation we are in, and the messaging marketers are currently sending out into the marketplace.

Perhaps the most jarring indication of this is advertising messaging showing people interacting without masks or physical distancing, when clearly this is not the case in the real world. And during the holidays, ads from across different industries celebrated being able to gather together again, despite Omicron throwing many a family’s plans into disarray.

Now I’m not advocating that we suddenly start portraying things like mask wearing in our ads or families in constant crisis. But there is a need to recognize and consider the new deep-seated needs of our target audience. Commercial enterprise is, by definition, optimistic and aspirational. People want to be distracted from the challenges of daily life. But I do think there is a need to consider societal challenges at very least as a part of corporate social responsibility.

Reconsidering messaging by reconsidering “wellness”

I propose that there is a need for messaging that broadens the idea of “wellness.” How can we heal our planet, society and us as individuals?

From a pandemic perspective, there is an opportunity to reinforce the importance of maintaining physical health and mental wellbeing. From a climate change perspective, there is an urgent need to promote healthier alternatives for the environment, and from an individual perspective there is a need to consider changing values.

There is an entire generation of people who are questioning their priorities. Whether it be work-life balance or the constraints of a loss of communal experiences, today’s consumer has a great deal of trepidation as to what’s next. We as marketers need to recognize this sea change of human experience. We must ask ourselves what will be the key drivers of consumer behaviour in this new normal?

Looking forward

As we prepare to fully embrace this “new normal,” there is a need to ensure we are relevant and empathetic to the current times we are in. While our messaging should stay positive and motivating, we need to consider the context of the times, not just the content we want to deliver. It is time to step back and take a broader view of the new normal.

Norman Melamed is chief operating officer of Innocean Worldwide Canada.