Petition urges global awards shows to reject COVID-related ads

For better and worse, brands have long been adapting their advertising to reflect major news stories, crises, emerging trends, etc. Some of those efforts are genuinely altruistic, while others are often ill-disguised attempts at attracting recognition and awards show success.

The rise of the COVID pandemic is no different, with some major global brands introducing advertising this week that addresses the crisis and reflects the rise of terms like “social distancing.”

Well-executed ads of this nature can lead to awards show gold, but a new online petition is calling for all major awards to ban COVID-related ads. “Because this is not an ad,” says the introduction on “It’s not the Super Bowl, or a new holiday.”

Spearheaded by a creative within the Publicis Groupe network who wants to remain anonymous, the petition had collected 385 signatures as of Thursday afternoon. Signatories include founders, CCOs and VPs from agency networks including BBDO, DDB and Droga5 in countries including the U.S., Brazil, Colombia, France and Turkey.

“There are big names in here that I recognize and that I’m really impressed to see aligning with this,” says the man. “I’m not an anti-awards guy at all, I’ve come with ideas with awards in mind and I’m totally fine with that, but the way I see it is that awards are based on creativity, and they define success by engagement and earned media and profit, and that’s not what [some brands] are trying to do here. They’re not trying to solve this problem creatively.

“Governments need medical supplies and funding… and changing your logo is not going to help.”

The brand response to the COVID crisis has been relatively muted and serious so far, although some brands and agencies might have had visions of Lions dancing in their head with some of their efforts.

McDonald’s Brazil and its agency DPZ&T, for example, separated the burger chain’s famed golden arches as a way of promoting social distancing. The ads were pulled down after the company was excoriated for its labour practices during the pandemic, including a highly public rebuke from Senator Bernie Sanders.

Coca Cola also altered the kerning on its name to reflect the need to maintain physical distance from strangers during the crisis, while banana brand Chiquita removed the Miss Chiquita mascot from its logo on social, noting “I’m already home. Please do the same and protect yourself.”

“If we can take awards off the table, it eliminates the urge people have for trying to go for one,” he says. “If the One Club and Cannes [Lions] actually said that this is something they’re going to do, it sends a clear message that this is something that should be taken seriously. It’s not a cultural insight.”

Some creatives, however, have suggested that awards for COVID-related ads are no different from those that raise awareness for other causes, and that the petition unfairly dismisses campaigns that positively influence consumer behaviour around the crisis.

“It’s very tricky, [and] every case is different, ” he admits. “Nike did those print ads about staying home, and I’m not really a fan, but they’re backing it up with action [the company pledged $15 million to fight COVID in communities where its employees live and work] and that’s what I think is more important.”

“I don’t really support the idea of running campaigns around COVID, but if you back it up with donations or CSR, I think it’s okay to let it slide. But when we’re seeing things like McDonald’s separating its arches while its executives are lobbying against paid sick leave for workers, that’s the kind of stuff I would not want to see [win awards]. If you want to get involved with the coronavirus right now, help or get out of the way.”

Chris Powell