Advertisers using COVID to their advantage risk complaints from the community
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is changing community attitudes to advertising content across the world as consumers are becoming more sensitive to scenes that until recently were commonplace.
Ads featuring social gatherings, people hugging or shaking hands are being complained about reflecting health advice across the globe. So far this year Australia’s Ad Standards have received 150 complaints that mentioned or referenced COVID-19. Not all of these complaints were specifically related to the pandemic – however many used it as a point of reference to current community standards or pointed to issues of the changing audiences for ads.
According to the Drum, KFC’s finger-licking ad in the UK prompted 163 people to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority, the U.K.’s advertising regulator. Many of those critics said that it was “irresponsible” for the fried-chicken chain to encourage people to put their hands in their mouths at a time when face-touching is off-limits.
Between mid-March 2020 to mid-May 2020, advertising self regulatory organisations across the globe dealt with more than 1600 complaints relating to coronavirus ads according to a report by ICAS, the International Council for Ad Self-Regulation. The main issues complained about were misleading health claims, financial claims, excessive pricing, offensive advertising, fearmongering, the promotion of unsafe behaviour or issues regarding the availability of the promoted product.
Some brands used the novel coronavirus to showcase drastic reductions in prices, with the aim to attract potential consumers. A German advertisement promoted discounted prices stating they were “infected by the virus” as they were lower than before the pandemic. That complaint was upheld.
In another overseas case, a complaint was lodged against an ad for a financial service provider featuring a scared-looking young child and the question whether the end of the world was near. The complaint was upheld due to its fearmongering content and irresponsible use of a child in advertising. During times of crises, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is deemed irresponsible to use the picture of a small distressed child as a means to attract attention to a product or service.
In Australia, Ad Standards generally take a ‘regulatory pragmatism’ view when it comes to processing complaints about advertising relating to COVID. Specifically, in relation to concerns that ads are not showing social distancing or are depicting behaviour which is not shown to be consistent with health and safety advice during the pandemic. When the ad does not reference or indicate that it is set during the pandemic, or contain a call to action to act in a way contrary to recommendations, the Community Panel has decided that such ads are unlikely to breach the AANA Code of Ethics.
It is important to note that while the Code of Ethics does not deal with complaints of a misleading or deceptive nature, the AANA Food and Beverage Code and Environmental Claims Code have this provision. Concerns raised by Australians about issues in advertising during the pandemic includes:
- ads suggesting you should go out or to work when sick
- a food product that promoted a boost to immunity
- concern that promotion of contactless delivery was misleading and unsafe
- mocking safety measures and encouraging unsafe behaviour
Another issue to note for advertisers, is that with families being in lockdown extra care needs to be taken when placing adult orientated advertising in the daytime, as children are more likely to form a greater part of the audience than normal. Complaints to Ad Standards very much reflects this, with parents and carers raising issues about children seeing inappropriate ads featuring sexualised content or unsafe practices.
For more tips about advertising during the pandemic – head to Ad Standards FAQs.