Ixnay on the OVIDCAY. For brand marketers, it’s time to move on from virus talk

September 20, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

Perhaps it was the sight of a woman lodging her tongue inside a man’s mouth, or that the couple depicted was one of several in various states of undress in a quasi-orgiastic setting, but a Suitsupply ad widely seen in March instinctively repelled many people conditioned by the pandemic to be careful not to do anything that might aid the spread of the coronavirus at a time when few were vaccinated.

“What about COVID?” was a common response on social media to the men’s-wear brand’s ad. As was “Imagine the germs!” Some felt it was a bit soon for an ad touting the impending arrival of “The New Normal” to be depicting activities still seen as dangerous to public health. But Suitsupply saw an opportunity to make a splash and tap COVID before rivals did. It was also aiming to get a jump on the resumption of spending on men’s dressier clothing, one of the hardest-hit areas of retail in the first year of the pandemic.

“Everybody was talking about it. ‘It’s disgusting,’ whatever. But at least, you know, everyone was reacting,” Suitsupply CEO Fokke de Jong told Fortune in an interview in August at his company’s Amsterdam flagship. “It’s becoming just part of life, and also, you have to stand out from your competitors.” (Suitsupply’s sales fell 39% in 2020, but the company expects revenues to hit their pre-pandemic level of about $400 million this year.)

Half a year after the Suitsupply ad, it’s clear that other brands also feel that consumers now see COVID as “part of life,” even as people grapple with ubiquitous and endlessly changing restrictions, and tire of seeing the virus used as the centerpiece of ads. Under this new normal, ads are returning to their main role of selling a brand on its merits and focusing on emotions—and if they have to reference the pandemic, they do so subtly.

Consumer COVID fatigue

“Everyone has a little bit of COVID fatigue,” said Kerry Benson, content analytics practice lead for North America at Kantar. “People are watching programming to escape.” Striking the right note is important at a time when consumers could be tempted to try rival brands, Benson said, citing a McKinsey study that found that 75% of Americans have tried new shopping behaviors during the COVID crisis.

Benson, who uses an A.I. tool developed by Kantar to assess how tone and messaging is shifting and also to forecast how well an ad might do in terms of generating sales or awareness, sees a number of current campaigns exemplifying that delicate balance between emotions and pandemic reality. Dick’s Sporting Goods, for one, is running an ad depicting female athletes training and competing. But of course, ads generally have to at least nod to the reality of COVID, and the Dick’s spot does that by not depicting packed stadiums.

Advertisers are selling a fantasy, after all, and since the pandemic threat seems less acute today, ads are trying not to hit people over the head with COVID.

“We have become acclimatized, and there’s less impetus and expectations for brands to be very specific in their response to the pandemic,” said Matt Quint, the director of Columbia Business School’s Center on Global Brand Leadership. There can even be avoidance: Benson notes that very few ads depicting in-store or in-restaurant service show people in masks.

Sector by sector

Still, the level of avoidance varies by how connected a product or brand is to COVID, or how much its consumption is influenced by infection rates and similar issues. Take Clorox. The bleach and disinfectant maker was one of biggest winners of the pandemic as panicked people sought to disinfect their homes and places of work thoroughly and often. Now, of course, Clorox wants to stay a priority product, and its tagline in an ad depicting teachers in a classroom keeping surfaces clean—“When it counts, trust Clorox”—is clearly meant to tug at heartstrings.

Airlines and other travel companies, arguably the sector of the economy most exposed to the ups and downs of COVID, have shifted their message away from how safe flying is, thanks to disinfectants and, they claim, improved ventilation systems, and toward tapping into people’s wanderlust or desire to see family, with emotional, almost saccharine ads.

A few months ago, for instance, Delta Air Lines put out an ad titled “We’ve All Changed” that did not mention COVID-19 by name but referred to it with images of people putting on masks. But in June, as the Delta variant, or B.1.617.2 as the company prefers to call it, threatened to derail air travel’s recovery, Delta released an ad called “Get Back to the World Safely.” As Kantar’s Benson put it, “If your brand’s business is dependent on keeping customers safe, then you should signal safety.”

But companies that can afford to sidestep overt references to COVID are doing so. Kohl’s, for instance, relies heavily on back-to-school revenue, even more so than rivals like Target and Macy’s. In fact, for Kohl’s the season is second in importance only to the holidays. One Kohl’s ad shows a dad dropping off his son on his first day at school, tapping the emotions of parents and kids stocking up on new gear for a school year that for the vast majority of schools will be in-person after a long period of online learning.

“Our back-to-school ad recognizes that it was a different kind of back-to-school, with parents who have their kids at home all year, sending them off for the first time in 18 months, so there’s a lot of emotion,” said Kohl’s CEO Michelle Gass. While Kohl’s provides subtle reminders of the COVID safety protocols it follows in stores, such as social distancing and regular sanitizing, the focus of its message is on the products and service, Gass says. Kohl’s core business, in other words.

At Macy’s, CEO Jeff Gennette is taking a similar tack as the holiday season nears. For instance, with family gatherings coming back as a majority of the population is vaccinated, Macy’s ads will focus on the warmth of family reunions after long separations. “We do believe that customers are going to come together in a really meaningful way for the holidays,” he said. “Our customer is reengaging with life.”

Even over at Suitsupply, the current ad campaign focuses on the quality and style of the brand’s clothing—in an orgy-free setting.

More must-read retail coverage from Fortune:

This story is part of Fortune’s Brandemic marketing: Going viral in the age of COVID series.

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