Old-normal advertising during the new-normal

I had recently shared an ad film made for Haldiram’s, by Lowe Lintas Bangalore.

This one.

And this is what I had written about it:

I was very surprised by a few comments that pointed out the fact that the ad film did not depict the new-normal! Some even pointed out that not depicting the new-normal is insensitive, and may harm the interest of the brand by showing something that is not the norm now.

While it is a perfectly valid sentiment/perspective, I do not believe that every ad needs to showcase the various facets of the new-normal: mask usage, social distancing, obsessive hand wash, and so on.

There are quite a few ways to consider this aspect.

1. Old-normal, but during the new-normal/now: We had a life before the pandemic where we wore masks only in polluted cities, washed hands far less often and social distancing was not a phrase at all. We had ads that depicted the (now) old-normal. A lot of ads that were perhaps shot in old-normal could make its way into the new-normal now that the media has saturated the news and updates around the pandemic significantly.

Of course, to a person who has someone they love/know affected by the virus right now, or who has lost someone owing to the virus recently, seeing an old-normal ad film may seem hugely incongruous. That’s because their lives would have been overpoweringly changed by the pandemic at that moment, and seeing something in a non-virus frame of reference would be jarring. But going by the numbers and percentages, this would seem like a relatively smaller number than the total number of people seeing the ad even as a normal piece of communication.

2. Pandemic-related setting is a choice: We are in the midst of the pandemic and are actively taking multiple measures to safeguard ourselves. To expect all of those measures to be depicted in the stories we are told may not be fully logical. To some extent, we realize that advertisements are stories – marketing stories. Product categories that are right in the middle of the pandemic-related usage (like soaps, masks, hand wash, immunity building products, etc.) would be extra cautious to depict the pandemic because their usage context depends on the pandemic!

But products and categories that are not directly used in the pandemic (in other words, the old-normal product categories) have a choice between depicting the pandemic cues or not.

For categories like toothpaste, coffee, chocolates, sweets (like Haldiram’s), furniture, e-commerce, digital payment apps, mobile network, smartphones, etc. can exercise their choice to tell their stories set in a pandemic context or in a non-pandemic context. The choice extends to the decision that setting their marketing stories in pandemic-relevant content could be seen as joining an already-crowded space where everyone else too is using the same setting.

3. Sensitivity: Just because the new Apple iPhone SE ads are set in a car where the family is not seen wearing masks (and the guy who buys the phone from the store isn’t wearing a mask either, even as he is coming back from the shop), it doesn’t mean they are insensitive to the pandemic-related cues. It simply means they understand that the audience will add that layer in their minds if need be. This ad was launched on September 4, 2020, incidentally.

Or take this Colgate ad that was launched on August 1, 2020. The whole setting is in a restaurant with no pandemic-centric context – no masks anywhere, a normally crowded/filled restaurant and so on. Yet, the ad specifically refers to the lockdown as a significant motivation to one of the actions in the narrative!

We audiences already add our own contexts to ads we see. For instance, one context all of add is to do with gender-related cues. Products that are explicitly meant for women may not seem relevant for men to see at all, but we do watch it (when it appears on TV ad breaks, for instance), fully aware that it not meant for us. Similarly, we may use affordability as a context to decide what’s for us and what’s not. I may see an expensive watch ad and continue to watch if the ad looks good, but with the awareness that it is not for me.

In a similar vein, showing sweets being exchanged between strangers in a train or a father hugging his daughter’s coach over a victory (post-match) as depicted in the Haldiram’s ad are perfectly normal situations that look odd only because of the pandemic. The audience is primed enough (by now, after the stringent lockdowns) that we need not/should not do what’s shown as is. Meaning: standard pandemic-rules apply in real life.

I recall sharing a late-2019/early-2020 a film from Pakistan, for Shan Masala in July 2020.

Someone (in LinkedIn comments) showcased a very serious and vehement admonition for the way the daughter walked into the house from work and started eating without a shot of her washing her hands!

The sentiment is right, of course – it’s plain personal hygiene, even before the pandemic. But before the pandemic, we were not hypersensitive to such specifics. We would have perfectly justified it as being removed from the script because it is not critical to the story being told. Meaning, it does happen but implied as an action happening in the background.

But mid-pandemic, the hypersensitivity may make some of us demand that earlier-unnecessary specific to be shown specifically. Even in an ad shot in 2019 and released in December 2019! That’s both impractical and pointless.



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