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How brands can influence social outcomes in future global crises
By our News Team | 2022
The impact of Covid-related brand advertising on social-distancing behaviour shows possible benefits for climate crisis too.
Researchers from three US universities – Clark, Indiana and Georgia State – have published a new article in the American Marketing Association’s peer-reviewed Journal of Marketing that assesses the impact of Covid-related brand advertising on social-distancing behaviour.
The study is entitled Societal Spillovers of TV Advertising – Social Distancing During a Public Health Crisis and authored by Ayan Ghosh Dastidar, Sarang Sunder, and Denish Shah.
Photo by Elizabeth McDaniel on Unsplash
Initial public policy responses to the pandemic were rife with chaotic decision-making and wide variations in the implementation of governmental guidelines. Social distancing was the primary intervention proposed by most governmental agencies, but these measures saw mixed results.
Brands, for their part, were quick to incorporate Covid-related narratives in their advertising strategies. While such advertisements likely influence brand-related outcomes (such as sales and customer awareness), it has not previously been clear whether they impact social outcomes unrelated to the brand – the so-called ‘spillover’ effects.
Dastidar explains: “By analysing advertising and mobility data, we find that counties where brands ran a greater number of Covid-19 advertisements generally showed higher levels of social distancing. This societal ‘spillover’ of advertising was quite substantial.”
For example, a 1% increase in Covid-related advertising led to an average of 466 additional people (compared to 2019) staying fully at home each day. This effect was more pronounced for larger US markets such as New York (6,527 additional people staying home) and Los Angele s (5,612 people additional people staying home).
Advertising spillover helped to save lives
“Given that social distancing was critical to preventing virus spread – especially before the vaccine was developed – this spillover effect may have saved lives,” he adds.
The study finds varying effects of advertising, based on brand-level and demographic variables.
“Our results indicate that the effect of advertising on social-distancing behaviour is amplified among more educated populations, but [weakened] in more conservative counties/boroughs/districts, which tend to contain higher [Caucasian] populations,” explains Sunder.
These findings have substantive implications for the power of brand advertisements to affect important societal outcomes and for government communication strategies.
Could brand advertising fill the void when government agencies fail to adequately respond to public crises? The answer seems to be an overwhelming ‘yes’, the researchers say.
A recent study by the Edelman Trust Barometer found that those surveyed trust businesses (61%) more than governments (53%), and 86% believe that CEOs must lead on societal issues, while 68% want CEOs to step in where governments fail.
The results of the newly published study concur with Edelman’s findings: Covid-related brand advertising effects on social-distancing behaviour are almost 11 times stronger in the absence of a cogent policy response (e.g., shelter-in-place, masking) from government agencies. This suggests that brands may have a critical role to play in weathering public crises of the future.
The effect of salience
Salience is identified as one of the primary underlying psychological mechanisms that help explain these findings. “When the pandemic was less prominent or salient in people’s minds, brand advertising played a more significant role in making the pandemic and its consequences more salient in their mobility-related decision-making process,” says Shah.
The research team also notes that the brand-advertising effects vary based on factors such as product category and demographics. For example, ads from certain product categories like entertainment, alcohol, tobacco and politics have a negative effect on social-distancing behaviour. Further, the effects are stronger in areas with greater population and higher levels of education.
“Brand managers and policymakers could use the findings from this study to devise more efficient, targeted, and timely communication strategies to deal with future health crises. The findings are [pertinent to] other public crises, such as climate change. Brand ads with relevant narratives may help increase the salience of the crisis and influence mitigative behaviours such as promoting recycling and switching to clean energy,” the study concludes.
Find out more about the research paper here.
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