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Advertising in a Crisis – Then and Now


Derek Morris digs into the history books to find that brands have long played supporting roles during testing times, turning government directives into actions and behaviours

Advertising in a Crisis – Then and Now
The recent VE day commemorations were a timely reminder of when the United Kingdom stood together in the face of another crisis. It might surprise you to know that advertising played an important part.

In 1939, when decisions were being made as to which industries to close, Lord Ashfield the President of the Advertising Association declared that advertising had a role in “sustaining morale and developing our war effort on the Home Front”.  While in the following year Norman Moore told the AGM of the IPA that “Advertising had a special opportunity of serving the public by maintaining a spirit of cheerfulness. In helping the public, it was serving the nation’s interests”.

Look at the archives and you will see that the industry lived up to these claims and created a Patriot-Consumer, ready to enlist and stand on the home front. Left to Government messaging alone, this would not have happened. Propaganda can only command the nation to more effort - to Pull Together! Dig for Victory! Keep Mum! Waste Less! Join Up! Eat Less! Stand Firm! 

(Or, recently, Stay at Home! and now Stay Alert!).


But during the war it was left to advertising to explain exactly how to pull, dig, save, eat, join, work. To provide the images and ideas so that people could create their own way to cope.   

Brands rolled up their sleeves and joined the war effort. They showed how to win the small daily battles of home and hearth, they spoke of calming nerves and boosting performance. Advertising worked to create some small sense of normality by showing that some things were still available. And when things were not available advertisers spent money to explain they had been sent to our boys at the front. Most importantly, there were many campaigns showing a vision of a better future, when the bad times would be over. For example take the following ad from Ford in Good Housekeeping in 1943 – a manufacturer with no consumer capacity, focused on engines for trucks and airplanes, which chose to spend money on an advertisement about toffee apples and potatoes, calling on housewives to stick to the collective effort and rules on rationing in the hope of a brighter tomorrow.

I think this description of the ad industries’ wartime response is a pretty accurate description of its performance in the last two months.  It has provided images on how to cope, images of togetherness and a promise that one day this will all be over.  Again, it has bridged the gap between the Government directive and the people action. There are outstanding examples from the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury, Dove, Nationwide Building Society, Nat West – to name but five.

The industry has done this by going back to what it is good at – understanding how to enter the conversation of the moment, understanding that you need to speak from alongside, not from above, and knowing that you need to mix hope and help in engaging ways. 

Of course, these are old rules. 

But as we come out of lock down and restart the economy, these are rules that should be kept up front and centre, not put at the back of the cupboard for the next national crisis. These are the rules by which we earn our engagement with the consumer, and when we forget them, we lose their trust and our work defaults to sales propaganda.  Alarmingly, we went into this crisis with the research from the Advertising Association showing that this was happening. We were bombarding the consumer with more and more irrelevant messaging and they were turning off.

The advertising industry should be proud of its lockdown performance, but as we get going again it needs to maintain these rediscovered good habits. The post-Covid world will be fragile and people we want to feel brands standing alongside, not blindly bombarding from above. People will need to be given the ideas and symbols by which to Stay Alert and build the new normal - good advertising will be key now just as it was in the 1940s.

Derek Morris is a consultant working on the Advertising Association campaign to reduce ad bombardment; he is also studying Consumer History at London University
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Advertising Association, Fri, 29 May 2020 12:14:10 GMT