If a friend were to manipulate you during a vulnerable time for their personal gain, you would likely shut them out of your life; but when companies do the same, we most often end up inviting them in. Over the decades, leading businesses across the world have leveraged sensitive events and topics for the self-serving purposes of marketing and financial gain – and in doing so, they have somehow managed to convince us that they are, in fact, doing it to benefit us: the beloved customers. We are, after all, as customers, the most important. We are, after all, always in the right. But those that bestow such blessings upon us often manage to slyly disguise the price for their niceties. When observing the media throughout the pandemic and Mental Health Week, one must question the motives behind some of the recent marketing tactics employed by big brands. Written by Ayna Custovic
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the lockdown that ensued resulted in bankruptcies and financial struggles for charities, independent companies and major corporations. However, whilst the economy was severely damaged, many prominent and profitable businesses were able to keep afloat. And the companies who still have millions sitting in their marketing budget to pay for their empty adverts that are updated incessantly are the ones who have the most to answer for. The ones who fill their coronavirus-centered ads with 45% branding, 45% evocative or inflammatory language, 8% useful advice or information, and 2% genuine concern (and those latter two percentages are generous). The ones who feel that it is appropriate (and not at all egocentric) to spend thousands on a new advert to promote how much they care about the coronavirus cause – because using this money as a marketing tactic is, to them, a far better idea than to contribute that money directly to the cause.
Let’s take a look at Facebook, who thought it appropriate to spend nearly $6.5million on promoting an advert marketing their new ‘Cheers for the Frontline’ group – an advert which, as it turned out, featured videos that were misrepresented as being from the group, and were in fact simply pulled from various other sources. Surprise, surprise. We can certainly agree that was a $6.5million well spent; surely showing the world just how caring Facebook is is a more valid cause than, let’s say, contributing that $6.5million towards PPE – which has been seriously lacking throughout the crisis – in order to protect thousands of those frontline workers that Facebook claims to care so much about. Ah, but of course – they are still in the recovery process of rebuilding their brand following that whole Cambridge Analytica scandal; you can see why their priorities might be self-centred.
Or how about Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos decided to open a relief fund for their essential lockdown workers and asked customers to contribute – a transparent attempt to tug on customers’ heartstrings to get yet more money out of them at a time when most people are struggling financially. You can see why he would need the help – he’s only the richest man in the world with a net worth of $150billion.
As for Nationwide, they somehow managed to top the-most-annoying-advert-of-all-time title that they claimed with their horrendous ‘guilt fairy’ advertisement with their even more horrendous lockdown-centred ‘Message to Myself’ advert. Rarely has there been a more sickly and shameless attempt to use a sensitive time to promote just how genuine, authentic and all-inclusive a company is. The logo and slogan slapped across the cutesy home-made videosare the cherry on top of the cake. One can only assume that the marketing team has it out for Nationwide. And certainly, spending money on an advert in a meagre attempt to build an authentic brand around the coronavirus crisis is a more worthwhile investment than directly contributing that money. Surely the thousands of people across the UK who are forced to mute the TV when the advert comes on, or are reduced to screaming profanities at it when the remote is missing, would agree.
The story follows the same narrative when it comes to Mental Health Week. For that exclusive week, companies cared. When the hashtags were trending, suddenly, the compassion came out. The TV and media was awash with businesses telling their dear customers just how concerned they were, and how they were there for them. It begs the question (albeit it’s rhetorical, as the answer is blindingly obvious): what was their incentive? A sceptic might say that the companies thought that using a sensitive topic as a marketing tactic would be a brilliant way to build their brand and boost their business in order to increase visibility, authenticity and trust – and most importantly, to increase profit. But surely profit would not come before morals? Sadly, we all know the answer to that one. And to all those companies who fill their ads with heartfelt voice-actors telling us that they are there to help us through our mental health struggles, there is one thing to say: please consider what you are offering and whether you are genuinely equipped to offer it before using it as a prop for your profits.
For starters, let’s take ITV’s recent Mental Health Week ad. It’s always been obvious that ITV is all about influencer marketing, but their Z-list celebrity filled ‘Let’s Get Talking’ ad feels oh-so reminiscent of a high school popularity contest in which kids brag about being friends with the cool kids in a shallow attempt to boost their social status – or in this case, brand. It’s a cheap tactic for such a sensitive and personal topic and one that is highly unlikely to offer any genuine support to those in need. When social media plays such a large and detrimental role in current mental health issues, to encourage people to use social media as a way to connect with others and to overcome mental health struggles is, at best, uninformed and out of touch.
And whilst Lloyds TSB have partnered with Mental Health UK, one really wonders whether they are, as a bank, prepared to take any genuine action towards helping customers relieve their money-related stresses. Will there be a mental health professional on the other end of the Customer Service line prepared to talk us through our troubles? Will Lloyds pause our interest payments or introduce interest-free loans and overdrafts to help us through our current coronavirus-related financial struggles and subsequent stress? Or will they simply regurgitate medical advice related to stress and anxiety across their website, social media and marketing materials in a feeble attempt to connect with customers using a worthy cause as their crux? Spoiler: they went for the latter.
The moral of the story is the same no matter which circumstance is being marketed: to use sensitive events as the basis for manipulative marketing messages is an exploitation of those who are vulnerable; and when the incentive for this is purely monetary, the exploitation becomes even darker. If a company is to genuinely want to get a message out or make a positive impact, there are many ethical ways to do so that don’t involve blatant attempts to brainwash us with logos, slogans and empty promises – and the money spent on marketing is guaranteed to have more valuable influence elsewhere. As consumers, we can only try our best to see through the feigned care of capitalist marketing tactics and to say no to inviting something in which will, undoubtedly, take more than it will give.