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When the UK was first plunged into lockdown in March 2020, alarm bells rang for brands and advertisers.

Strategists and creatives needed to quickly assess the new landscape as it was being formed. What was the mood of the nation? How do our communications fit in this new context? Does it change our plans? Do we stick to the plan or rip it up and start again? A difficult choice only amplified by the speed at which the pandemic, and its economic impact, was unfolding. 

Any brand that referenced Covid, even in a subtle way, triggered negative responses in audiences.

Our ad testing networks gave us an advantage at System1. We could test and measure the emotional responses of audiences to hundreds of ads every week, meaning we could clearly see the impact Covid was having. Initially, with no means of making a high production advert, many brands resorted to leveraging user generated content, sprinkled with tinkling piano music and references to ‘unprecedented times’. Whilst the similarities of these spots meant most lacked any kind of differentiation in the minds out audiences, some were effective at pulling our heartstrings.

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ITV – Clap From Our Carers

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Mars – Isolation Life: Home Baking

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Mars – Isolation Life: Hide And Seek

Above: ITV's Clap for Carers and Maltesers' Isolation spots tapped into community spirit.


ITV effectively tapped into national community spirit with Clap for Carers, and Maltesers' Home baking ad showed it was possible to really connect with the audience in a powerful way when talking about Covid. But this was short-lived. 

As we went back into lockdown towards the end of the year, our metrics revealed an obvious fatigue. Any brand that referenced Covid, even in a subtle way, triggered negative responses in audiences, and in every single case their score dropped compared to the previous Christmas. Even Amazon, who produced a wonderful ad showing the emotional journey of a young ballerina overcoming the challenges of 2020, saw their score drop dramatically from last year.

What will the hope that comes from the vaccine rollout and a possible end to the pandemic bring?

Conversely, brands that provided us with some escapism, referenced the past, or provided a little familiarity saw dramatic increases in their ad scores. Coca-Cola’s use of their classic Holidays Are Coming ad cleverly leveraged the nostalgia it evokes, and was exceedingly well received by audiences, achieving the highest possible rating in our Christmas Ads rankings.

The lesson at the end of last year was not to remind people what we are going through - but inspire them with what we might get back to.

Coca-Cola – The Letter

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Above: Coca-Cola's Christmas spot for 2020 scored highly with consumers for providing escapism. 


So what of 2021? What will the hope that comes from the vaccine rollout and a possible end to the pandemic bring? How will it be offset by the growing realisation of the far-reaching economic impact? If the past year was defined by uncertainty, fear and wanting to forget, then 2021 will be defined by optimism, relief and excitement. 

We may be about to enter an era not too dissimilar from the roaring 1920s a century ago. Emerging as they did from the devastation of World War I, the Spanish flu and massive economic uncertainty, they embraced a new found freedom with rapid social and economic change. So, I think a number of emotions will stand out in 2021.

If the past year was defined by uncertainty, fear and wanting to forget, then 2021 will be defined by optimism.

Firstly we should recognise that contentment that comes from the familiar. We are creatures of habit and, contrary to popular opinion, familiarity breeds contentment not contempt. After coping with so much change, the joy of going to the pub again, seeing friends and even returning to the office where we can actually meet our colleagues will have newfound novelty.

Second is the happiness of human connection. If our data tells us anything, it’s that we are social creatures. The re-discovery of our social side will create a great deal of happiness. I don’t care how good Zoom is, or how much online shopping I can do from the comfort of my own home, we all have a deep need to socialise with each other.

Contrary to popular opinion, familiarity breeds contentment not contempt.

Third is the joy of freedom. With so many restrictions placed on how we live our lives, the return of our social freedom will be exhilarating. As we begin to travel again, go on holiday and experience new adventures, we will rediscover the joy that comes from our hard won freedoms. And finally a little humour. With so many serious issues to contend with from a global pandemic, to economic misery and the cultural tensions heightened by social media, I think we will rediscover our sense of humour and take ourselves less seriously. 

After all if we want to forget 2020, we want to make 2021 worth remembering for the right reasons.

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