Lead Forensics

Mind your language: why we need a new narrative in advertising

11 November 2020


How has the COVID-19 crisis changed the way humans think about the world, and what can we as advertisers and agencies do to remain effective in a shifting landscape?

This was the area of focus as Geoffrey Beattie, psychology professor and author, joined EffWorks Global 2020 recently for a virtual chat.

The emergence of a crisis

Humanity for millennia has prided itself on its ability to stifle threats. We’ve learned that a healthy lifestyle reduces our risk to diseases, while adhering to a moral code protects our social fabric. We soothe ourselves with a balm of perceived control.

Then COVID-19 came along.

The extend of the crisis was at first slow to reveal itself. News reports of a new virus in Wuhan began to surface, but it was a problem both geographically and experientially separated from our everyday.

Then the articles became more concerning. Reporting soon moved from intrigue and conjecture to something more urgent and foreboding. Friends and families started discussing this ‘novel coronavirus’. The language of fear began to bite.

A systemic shift

It was at this point, argues Beattie, that we started to shift towards System 1 thinking; that impulsive, instinctive, automatic and unconscious brand of brain activity.

Meanwhile, confronted by an increasingly chaotic set of circumstances nobody had experienced before, the system 2 part of our brains – the domain of more controlled, considered and conscious thinking – became depleted. We simply couldn’t make sense of what was happening.

We became more vigilant, living in a state of constant alertness as lockdown ensued and cases exploded. Fear, anxiety and confusion reigned down as mixed government messaging and powerful, emotional imaging latched on to our thought-processes.

People on ventilators; families unable to say goodbye to loved ones; mass redundancies; the supposedly ‘indiscriminate’ nature of the disease: the stories we heard all coalesced into one formidable, alien threat.

Alas, survival mode inevitably kicked in, with any mix of denial, defensive avoidance, reactance, anger and blaming of ‘the other’ now a daily occurrence for many. Trying to move beyond this has been tough. Scarper

The resilience of positivity

And yet, according to Beattie, the nature of COVID-19 has also roused within us a host of positive behavioural traits.

Faced with social isolation and persistent uncertainty, many of us have started to reconsider our fundamental values. We see the sacrifices being made by frontline workers, communities coming together to support the most vulnerable, and strangers reaching out to other strangers.

And perhaps most importantly when we look at the bigger picture, it’s forced us to re-evaluate the future we want as a planet and species.

Rising up to a second wave

In a suddenly topsy turvy world where trivial objects can suddenly be lifesaving while things we used to see as safe and comforting are now a threat, we crave one thing above all else: the retrieval of control.

As Beattie observes, we feel disempowered – and this has only been exacerbated by the onset of a second wave. Despite all the struggle and suffering we’ve gone through, it wasn’t enough; the virus returned – and with it, feelings of disconnection, isolation, anxiety, boredom and helplessness.

This is the challenge facing us as advertisers and agencies.

Owning the narrative

Beattie posits that to overcome it, we need to introduce and enhance new positive emotional images. The campaigns we deliver should attempt to shift people away from the state of constant vigilance and alertness to one of exploratory attention; a move that would consequently provide the mental conditions for more sustained consideration and understanding.

To achieve this, we need to create powerful new metaphors (think ‘Just Do It’, or ‘It gives you wings’) in our communications that, as Marcel Danessi, a professor in semiotics, states, “tap into the emerging narrative, not only intentionally, but honestly… and with a conscience.”

According to Danessi, messaging needs to be rooted in the context and relevant to an identifiable narrative storyline, which is far from easy to detect in a fragmented digital world of memes, viral videos and fake news, granted.

Yet, with COVID, climate change and social justice movements all intersecting to create, in Danessi’s words, a “meta-pandemic”, it’s becoming increasingly clear that 2020 is the year where ‘life must change.’ This is something that feels tangible; something we can work with.

Time to act

The impact of the metaphors we create within this narrative can be strengthened through a combination of nostalgia, irony, humour and spontaneity – cognitive triggers that all have the capacity to lighten the mood in a crisis, argues Beattie.

Familiar music, images of families or friends and other stimuli that tethers us to a sense of structure and control are also effective, while nods to individuality can be impactful as a means of renewing the sense of selfhood many have lost in these difficult times. The exact complexion of your strategy will depend on your brand.

However, one thing we must all provide is hope – hope that a better future is within our power. We must lead authentically and sensitively, reaching as many people as we can along the way with media strategies informed by insight.

Ultimately, the extent of our success will depend on how brave we want to be, and how consistent we are in our actions. We must listen, engage, and remember what connects us to the people we’re trying to reach: our humanity.



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