Copywriting in the Age Of Coronavirus

Though it has yet to grab the U.S. like it has Italy or China, Coronavirus—COVID-19—is ubiquitous. What we do know is blasted on every television screen. What we don’t is discussed ceaselessly by the millions of Americans tracking its creep. And why not? Even if the most pessimistic doomster is wrong, this illness will be the deadliest we’ve seen for over a century.

Of course, life stumbles on, and so will business. But that raises challenging questions, especially for an industry like copywriting—whose very existence is based on optimal positioning and delicate messaging. How should brands discuss Coronavirus as the pandemic builds?

Not the time for jokes

As with all things Coronavirus, the basic fact to consider here is its dreadful human impact. Those you love, including yourself, may or will get sick. A rare few—but still too many—will die. And for so long as information and uncertainty abound, fear will rule the day. You cannot endear yourselves to customers by making light of anything. So don’t.  

A wag on Twitter recently wondered how long it’ll take for someone to publish their “Viral Marketing and How to Craft Contagious Content” course. He needn’t have bothered. I’ve been spammed with real adverts pushing self-isolated lunchtimes and “CoronaSales”—promising big discounts on clothes. These and dreary puns about “going viral” are a stain on their hapless authors. 

On the other hand, firms that use their marketing clout to relay information—or meet the public good—are in the clear, even if they’re ultimately civic-minded ploys. YouTube didn’t have to donate ad space to official health agencies, and no one forced airlines to tweak their rules to help out stranded passengers. That they did, and might actually save lives along the way, provides clear benefit—and a surge of much-needed goodwill.

But a good time to reflect

The COVID-19 emergency shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to grasp for revenue, but are there broader opportunities for copywriters to reflect on the state of their industry? We think so. That begins with where we work. Now that the entire economy is going into self-isolation, your copywriting can carry on, armed with Google Docs and Zoom. More to the point, remote working is the perfect opportunity to spend quality time with loved ones—and remember that even if hugging is ill-advised, work-life balance matters, particularly now. 

If you, like so many businesses, experience a resulting slowdown in customer work, your marketers can still turn it into an opportunity. Marketers can and should re-focus their energies on their content marketing priorities: updating websites, tending to their blogs, launching an SEO campaign, reinventing sales decks, and revising sales collateral that’s been pushed aside, waiting for a rainy day. 

Looking beyond the zeitgeist 

In a larger sense, this pandemic offers a chance to reconsider how we do advertising. Let’s return to those vulgar adverts from earlier. It’s telling that certain brands feel obliged to snatch at the headlines, like late commuters running for a train. This isn’t new. From Budweiser attacking Donald Trump’s xenophobia to Smirnoff backing marriage equality (to say nothing of Pepsi’s dreadful appropriation of Black Lives Matter), the cultural climate can often feel like an excuse to avoid explicitly selling your product. 

As the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s tugged copywriters away from cliches of suits and sexism, so today’s pandemic may trigger another shift. Maybe the pendulum will swing in favor of depth, meaning, and resonance. 

Compare some of today’s ads with counterparts from previous decades. Volkswagen’s “Think Small” and De Beer’s “A Diamond Is Forever” campaigns meaningfully engage with their brands’ strengths, rather than obscuring themselves behind glib (if attention-getting) political messages. More to the point, ads like these are literally timeless. Unlike their virus-inspired cousins, they won’t disappear as the journalistic winds change and the zeitgeist evolves.

Coronavirus is a human, social, and economic tragedy. Regardless of how your company or agency reacts in the coming weeks and months—and no matter how many thought leadership articles you find time to write from your kitchen table—the real toll will be in lives. With that in mind, let’s use the current crisis to reflect on what matters—both in copywriting and in life as a whole.

 

Andrea is originally from London, and came to New York after a stint in journalism. He loves everything to do with writing—as well as obscure language facts, decent wine, and chocolate cake.

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