Media, marketing and advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic
In these unprecedented times, media, marketing and advertising have been given the opportunity to become, more than ever, a crucial source of information and instruction for individuals, as many are scared and feel the need to be as present and informed as possible, while others are increasingly looking for new ways to fill their time.
In this context, many advertising messages revolve around social and civic responsibility, aiming to promote social distancing, as advised by all Romanian authorities, and emphasising usability features whilst promoting a state of calm composure. Correspondingly, the trend amongst most service providers is to advise their customers to pay their invoices online and to limit any activities that would require going outside, as much as possible.
During this COVID-19 pandemic, the main goal for players in all markets is to create stronger bonds with their target audiences, as the messages transmitted during this period will have a very significant impact on the mind of the consumer, both in the medium and the long term. So simple approaches like advertising that promotes staying at home for consumers’ safety or presenting products or services that are designed to ease the lockdown period are considered to be made with good-faith and are encouraged by the relevant authorities.
Although it is in the general interest to guarantee a safe environment (both in audio-visual communications and online communications) where consumers feel well protected against any illegal practices that potentially put their health at risk, there are, unfortunately, some campaigns that aim to profit from the consumers’ fear.
Fortunately, such behaviour does not go unpunished. One of the competent bodies that ensures truthful and honest communication with the consumer - The National Audio-visual Council (“NAC”) - has been rather busy in this time of crisis, sanctioning various entities, such as radio and TV stations, for spreading communications that aim to target the consumers’ fear in the context of this pandemic.
Article 101 of the Code for the Regulation of Audio-visual Content, states that "any form of promotion of products or services that suggests to the public or encourages it to give up other similar or similar identifiable products or services is prohibited" and has been invoked by the competent authorities when applying any sanctions.
The NAC applies sanctions/issues decisions to bring entities into line with legal requirements, depending on the seriousness of the deviations from the legislation, whilst another relevant body, the Romanian Advertising Council, also discourages the creation and broadcasting of advertising spots which can induce confusion or panic amongst the population during this period.
Moreover, the entities behaviour in trying to exploit consumers’ fear hasn’t gone “unpunished” by public opinion either. In this respect, such campaigns have been criticised by the public (especially on social media platforms) for taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis and trying to profit from consumers’ fears in these troubled times. There have been online boycott campaigns and multiple complaints, addressed by consumers to authorities, aiming to eliminate such content from both online and offline environments. Authorities have banned the content from radio and TV and, as a result, such advertisements have disappeared from the online environment as well.
In the same fight to limit the spread of, and eradicate, the current threat, at European level, consumers have been advised by the European Commission to be cautious if traders in their marketing campaigns adopt various behaviours such as:
- using language or images which explicitly, or implicitly, suggest that a product is able to prevent or cure the COVID-19 infection;
- making reference to health professionals (unofficial sources) stating that a product is able to prevent or cure any infection with the COVID-19 virus;
- referring by name or logo to government authorities, official experts or international institutions which have allegedly endorsed the protective or curative claims without providing hyperlinks or references to official documents;
- using scarcity claims such as “only available today” or “selling out fast” or similar phrases;
- informing of market conditions such as “lowest price on the market”, “only product that can cure COVID-19 infections” or similar phrases;
- using prices that are well above the normal price for similar products due to the fact that they would allegedly prevent or cure any COVID-19 infection.
On the other side, the crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic has already reduced advertising budgets in Romania. Figures from March 2020 show decreases in radio, online, outdoor and print advertising volumes and specialists are afraid this slight decline is just the beginning of a deep crisis in the media market.
In terms of numbers, between 1 and 22 March 2020, the period that marks the increase of protection measures due to the state of emergency, the 13 radio networks monitored by the Romanian Audit Office Transmedia (“BRAT”) broadcast 39,640 commercial advertising spots, worth 14.7 million lei, a decrease of 9.4% compared to the same period last year. When looking at the online situation, studies show that, between 23 and 29 March 2020 when compared to a “normal” week before the establishment of the state of emergency (e.g. 2 – 8 March 2020), the number of single customers viewing news sites increased by between 2% and 3% .
The practices relating to both audio-visual communications as well as online communications regarding the pandemic must always transparently inform the consumer about the specifics of the products and services and must avoid exploiting the consumers’ fear of COVID-19. Only in this way, will the media industry create stronger bonds with its’ audiences and efficiently contribute to the fight against the virus.