Advertising in the Time of Coronavirus

Creatives give their takes on the best campaigns in recent weeks.

Which brands are getting their Coronavirus advertising right? We've asked Creatives to give their thoughts on the best creative ideas and responses to the outbreak.

To participate in this popular series, email your three favourite ads to

The creatives' choices

    Jon Grainger and David Wolff, Owners, Grainger and Wolff

    Obviously no-one has cracked the toughest brief yet (a vaccine) but they will. Paradoxically, though, the last two months have showcased what our industry should always be about: coming up with great ideas.

    To this end some of the best brand ads haven’t been ads at all. That’s what makes them such good ideas. They’ve been half-price meals to NHS workers, overnight accommodation for exhausted key workers in hotels close to hospitals, or waivers on customers’ bank overdrafts.

    Advertising ideas that have come in more familiar form were written and directed from spare rooms cluttered with junk or from kitchen tables surrounded by piles of laundry. Further proof that great, even life-changing, ideas can come from anywhere.

    Here are three of our recent favourites:

    ITV - Honda in The People's Ad Break

    What a great idea to get a locked-down British public to re-make their favourite ads and then run the winners in an ad break on Britain’s Got Talent. A lot of 'Corona' ads have been (understandably) worthy but this homage to Honda just radiated morale-boosting fun, which is what we all needed. And putting IPA hats on, it’s a great ad for advertising from the spiritual home of UK TV advertising, to re-assure all those jittery brands out there that your audience is ready and waiting to re-engage with you.

    Burger King - Stay Home of the Whopper

    Lots of great ideas in this US TV ad for Burger King: a brand’s decision to endorse a vital public health message on primetime TV, and then to support its country’s front line health workers, and that’s before we even get to the ad itself. Who could possibly resist a burger when all your have to do is lie on the sofa and become a couch potatriot? Like ITV, another great example of finding a positive tone in difficult times.

    Daunt Books - Not so unprecedented times


    Is it a good idea to start advertising during a pandemic? No doubt you’ve all been on countless Zoom calls debating the pro’s and con’s. Listen to these radio ads from Daunt Books and decide for yourself. Hopefully a small brand taking to the airwaves will encourage others to do likewise and accelerate a comeback that has to be good for everyone.

    Finally, let’s not forget the avalanche of memes that have been doing the rounds and selling the most important brands of the last two months, “Morale”, “Sanity” and “Gratitude”. The memes we remember and forward on? The ones with the best ideas, of course.

    Jon Sharp, Creative Director, Big Cat

    The brands that I think are reacting well to the change are the ones that are still being themselves and reading the room. A lot of brands knee jerked into a 'safe' reaction. The new ground brands found themselves treading on, coupled with an urgency to respond led to a lot of similar executions with an overbearing tone. These may have been coming from the right place but it's meant there is no distinctiveness for the brand to be remembered, and with lockdown fatigue setting in the tone has perhaps become a bit tiresome. We don't want to be reminded of the bad stuff all the time. The responses that have stood out for me have taken – or moved on to – a different approach.

    Durex – Let's Not Go Back to Normal


    The phrase 'new normal' is probably another that's becoming a little worn out but I thought this execution from Durex saw the opportunity that's been created and ran with it. For the right brand with the right message, this is a time where people's routines and habits have been so disrupted as to make them open to change behaviour. Fit's perfectly into Durex's 'challenge the norms' campaign.

    Banksy - NHS


    Banksy's ability to tap in to the mood of the nation is usually spot on. This is no exception. A lot of responses had focussed on the PPE marks left on healthcare workers faces – one campaign even added the indents of known superhero masks. This response from Banksy takes a different approach portraying how children might see these job roles now, or in the future. Lovely stuff that makes the viewer do some work.

    Heineken - #SocialiseResponsibly


    Lockdown video call struggles framed in a light hearted and amusing way. It's not over promising or being excessively heartfelt – just reading the room, making people smile and reminding them that Heineken exists so they might pick some up on their next battle through the supermarket. Nailed it.

    Tamryn Kerr, Creative Director, VMLY&R

    I was once lucky enough to hear Richard Curtis speak at an agency event. It was just after the Brexit vote, the country was divided and the mood of the agency was pretty sombre. I don’t remember his exact words, but he talked about how you see the best creativity in the most difficult situations. His example was the 1985 Live Aid concert that came from musicians wanting to do something about the Ethiopian famine. Surely one of the greatest creative collaborations ever seen to this day.

    Our industry is built on creative problem solving, so now more than ever, it’s creativity’s time to shine. It’s our time to find creative solutions to support the NHS and each other, to educate and even to entertain. And it’s our time to find creative ways around production obstacles, proving that we don’t always need a million pound shoot to make a great ad because let’s be honest, it might be a while before we get those sorts of budgets again.

    I’m liking the work that finds clever ways to tackle isolation production restrictions and proves that good work can come from even the toughest situations. The work that goes beyond video calls, because the last thing I want to do at the end of a long day of zoom calls is to turn on the telly only to see another one.

    Earl of East - Scents of normality


    Candle brand Earl of East and Uncommon Creative Studio released a range of candles that smell like the places that we’d rather be during lockdown. While ‘The Local’ has notes of spilt beer, urinal block and cheap rosé, ‘The Cinema’ is a fusion of popcorn, foam banana and the allium tang of adolescent boredom.

    If you’re eager to relive the scent of adolescent boredom you should know that you’ll be doing some good too, with a portion of the proceeds going to Hospitality Action.

    Clever, witty and does good. What more could a campaign ask for?

    L’Oreal - How To Color Gray Hair At Home with Eva Longoria

    We’ve all seen the L’Oreal hair colour ads that feature a string of glamorous celebrities getting their hair coloured by famous stylists in swanky hair salons. Literally the furthest thing away from reality for most people who buy home hair colour. I mean, I’m currently using an ironing board as a desk so say no more...

    But then I saw this. Eva Longoria with actual real not-added-in-post grey roots, on camera, in her bathroom, giving us a “real life” hair colour tutorial.

    No hovering hair stylist or dramatic wind machine, just her stunning charismatic self.

    Ironically, the lack of those things made this the most convincing home hair colour ad I’ve ever seen.

    Tesco Food Love Stories - Dedications

    Tesco builds on their incredibly successful campaign with this COVID edition of Food Love Stories. This instalment tugs at heartstrings by asking people to dedicate a dish to someone they love.

    Other than clearly being user generated (which actually adds to the charm of the campaign), this ad slots seamlessly into the FLS campaign, and is even more poignant with many of us being physically separated from family and friends.

    Becky McOwen-Banks, Executive Creative Director, VaynerMedia

    Now we are into the seventh week of WFH and whilst conversations with inanimate objects and pets increase, our boredom and sanity-levels are being tested. It's great to take a moment and think about the sheer number of brands that have tried to make contact and which ones we can actually remember.

    So many images of clapping for carers or video calls start to merge into one, leaving only the brands whose message resonated - not only for the time we are in but for the brand itself.

    It's also interesting to see how we have become more daring with the creative as lockdown becomes more 'normal', moving from what we can do in our homes, to what we can produce whilst staying safe, with each stage of confinement unleashing more creative production answers. I love that these are techniques that mean shoots will be tackled so differently when we return to agency life. The joy of the creative industry is that we keep curious and keep creating.

    Lego - Be a hero

    I have to start with one that is so on-brand and on-point and all with charm. An amazing brand strength to begin with and to use that power of play to deliver what could have been a sombre 'no play' message. Bravo.

    Women's Aid Federation of England - The Lockdown

    Sticking with messages that hit home, Women's Aid Federation of England "The Lockdown" from Engine Creative was the first I remember to deliver not only stunning use of the emptied streets to London, but the lack of V/O to cut through the constant noise so effectively. Chillingly beautiful with sparse, pointed messaging.

    Tele2 - Drones


    This next one came to me through a friend on social. I just loved the step-change from 'no human contact' meaning home footage only into deserted streets and on to drones that takes the majesty of what can be achieved up a gear.
    Congrats to Tele2 Lithuania and Ogilvy

    UNICEF - Waiting

    And finally a tiny piece of fabulous from my own stable for UNICEF. I am so proud of being a part of this team - an important message with such impact when timings and budget are tight. Not sure any of my previous work hit 30 million organic views in 24 hrs, which shows the power of a simple creative thought, delivered with empathy cuts through.

    Sue Higgs, Group Creative Director, Grey London

    We are living in unprecedented times, which has led to an unprecedented use of the word unprecedented. 

    I think it’s fair to say I’m over the novelty of WFH. Although the fact we’ve broken the stigma of WFH because it er …works, is great. It just feels odd, because we’re not working from home really, we’re in a pandemic trying to work from home. Different.

    Like grief, there’s phases to this pandemic. I’m over the sad bit and the ad break looking like a stock footage showreel.

    If you’re a pianist who specialises in sad piano though, you’ll be loving every note of it. It’s something when the memes are more insightful.

    And I’ve been asked to look at stuff that’s stood out in the COVID-19 times. I cannot ignore my suffragettes blood (my great grandmother) so its “Deeds not words” that speak to me, the way brands have pivoted. (So many new words for 2020, Pivot, furlough, self-isolate, zoom drink, quarantine etc.) It’s like finding out someone is good at DIY and it makes them all the more appealing somehow. The Burberry and Louis Vuitton gowns for front line workers, the Burger King drive through in Milan for key workers, and our local pub turning into a market. Brilliant pivoting.

    Like someone wiser than me said COVID-19 is a pandemic not a brief…so let’s get a look at the work:

    I like The Burger King the quarantine whopper. A brand that consistently delivers, virtually speaking, though it’s been picked previously… and Nike which also can turn it’s comms to reflect the current environment.

    ITV - Get Britain Talking

    I love what Uncommon and ITV are doing. Instead of trying to make me cry they’re trying to get me to talk to people. This feels useful and speaks to me in these times.

    Netflix - Spoilers

    I also like the audacity of Netflix, aimed at the minxy millennial and hitting them where they hurt, in the spoiler. It’s a fun strategy that makes sense. I believe it was speculative, shame it was fun.

    Carlsberg - Adopt a Keg

    Then there’s Grey Europe’s adopt a keg. Imagine being let out of lockdown and all the pubs have shut down? Unthinkable.

    There are some great things happening in these Covid times. Street art. Communities coming together, Pret giving us their cookie recipe (not good for waistline). Gary Barlow’s crooner sessions (guilty pleasure).

    So what I’m saying...

    Adapt to survive, that’s true creativity.

    Raman Kaur Sandhu, Senior Graphic Designer, IPA

    I have seen many articles and reports claiming that consumers feel that brands should not be advertising at this time. And it is true that now is not a time to be selling your products or even your brand, but it is a time to make your brand relatable. Show a human side to the corporate machine and build your brand identity.

    Consumers remember. And they feel. And they will instinctively follow a brand that made them feel good and happy. One that reflected their ideologies and beliefs.

    And advertising appropriately – cleverly - at such an uncertain time will cement your brand ideologies with the consumers, building your brand in insurmountable ways.

    For me, it has been those brands that showed compassion. The ones that made me smile, or even out right laugh. And even the ones that made me rewind and re-watch, just to make sure I was seeing what I was seeing. The ones that have stayed true to their image and reminded us why we loved them in the first place. These are the ones that have stayed in my mind, and got me talking.

    Cathedral City - #StayHome

    Cathedral City adverts have always centred around the idea of rushing home to the comforts of the cheesy goodness that is "the nations favourite". I like this advert because it stays honest to their brand, their message. But now rather than coming home to Cathedral City, we are staying home for it. Perfect.

    SEAT – Moving is what we do

    SEAT's adverts for the last few years have carried the message “start moving”. This advert has seamlessly developed that message to say don’t worry. “We’ll get you moving again” when the time is right. Its genius!

    And the advert is put together wonderfully, nostalgic and recognisable clips intertwined with fun ones, sweets ones, relatable ones. With the promise that this won’t last forever and we will be out on the move again soon.


    guiness distant.jpg

    I also just wanted to take a moment to recognise a creative that has gone viral, and initially had nothing to do with the brand at all.

    This advert was created by Freelance copywriter Luke O'Reilly, and quickly went viral. The public completely unaware that it wasn’t even an official advert. It gained so much momentum, that even Guinness picked it up, and after getting permission from Luke, began sharing it on their social media platforms. Even AdWeek have said 'It’s Not a Real Guinness Ad. But It’s a Perfect Guinness Ad'.

    This of course isn’t the only one of its kind. Social media is brimming with adverts created by students and creatives around the world, and are so in tuned to the brand images I think it shows how powerful and important brand advertising is, when “outsiders” are able to tap in and create things so clever yet so representative of the brand.

    And finally…


    I couldn’t not give a nod to these hilarious, and sorry, but on point messages from Durex and Pornhub. Perfect timing… and perfectly on brand. And let’s be honest, both of these brands are potentially getting a lot of use in times like these!

    Laura Muse, Creative Director, VCCP

    In these unprecedented, uncertain and difficult times, it is important to stand out. In fact right now, not using clichés has never been more important. Because even though we are further apart as an industry, the sheer number of near-identical ads out there proves that we’ve never been closer. Add twinkly, sombre piano music. Repeat all to fade.

    Ok, I’m being unfair. None of us really has a clue how to navigate our way through this. And it’s extremely hard to find different ways to address what on earth is going on, while every day the ground is shifting beneath our feet.

    But the stuff that’s coming out on top for me, is the work that reminds me why I love the brand. The stuff with real personality, that stands on its own without needing to sell me something. Because trying to flog stuff while there’s thousands of people dying somehow doesn’t feel right. Now more than ever.

    BBC - Seriously, stay at home.

    Kings of entertainment, the BBC draw me in with their incredible comedy archive of national treasures before hitting me with a serious message. Count me in for staying inside club.

    Paddy Power - Better Odds

    paddy power covid.jpg

    Masters of banter, Paddy Power manage to raise a smile with a pun while nudging me to save the NHS and save lives. There’s nothing even out there to bet on (unless they’re taking odds on a NUFC takeover?), but I remember why I like them popping up in my life. Great work. Pop me down for a tenner on "Mike Ashley will mess it up again".

    Audi - The Drive

    Champions of precision, Audi have provided a rare moment of beautiful relaxation in the melee of noise. While most car brands are telling us to stay inside, Audi have helped give us a way to get back out on the road. Brilliant score too. Not sure Karen on Facebook would call the 3 hour long drive for the shoot “an essential journey”, mind. She’s probably reported them already.

    Rich Denney, ECD St Luke’s London

    We really are in the thick of uncertainty right now. But through all the anxiety the good news is we are in this together and as daunting as it feels, it’s reassuring knowing that we stand side by side. Just seeing online how society is tackling the virus is humbling in itself.

    Last week the nation took part in clapping for our incredible NHS heroes. Seeing all the posts and shares across the country after the event was incredibly touching and unifying.

    It’s these simple acts of kindness and gestures that will define this moment in time forever. With that in mind, the same principal should also apply to brands putting messages out there right now too. We need to consider the way we approach what we say from a true human perspective more than ever.

    Just look at the way society responded to Tim Martin when he said JD Wetherspoons would remain open. And rightly so. That wasn’t done for the benefit of its customers. It was a selfish act. His actions gained nationwide outrage within minutes of sharing his message. Share prices fell and since the outrage brewery suppliers have since vowed to stop supplying his chain due to his next offering on freezing wages. Someone even went out and gained planning permission to open a Wetherspoons museum. All bad press and negativity for the brand that not only will cripple his business in the long run but could potentially affect those that worked hard for his business to date. The bar staff, cooks and cleaners, the list goes on.

    It’s tough right now, we are on lockdown and marketing budgets have been put on hold or slashed even but that doesn’t mean brands have to lose visibility, you just have to be more thoughtful about the way you go about it. Of course, it’s tricky during a crisis trying to sell your product especially when the world is paused around you. But, with some proper strategic thinking that’s tonally relevant to the brand - and importantly the audience - your message can keep you in the minds of those at home, ready for when the doors open again.

    Ikea: Stay Home

    ikea stay home.jpg

    IKEA is a great example of that. Right when were told to stay at home the home furniture giant joins the conversation in its ‘wonderful everyday’ tone of voice supporting the Government’s message to stay at home using their iconic flat pack instruction manual as a call to arms. A strong message but done with a positive smile.


    It’s no secret Facebook has recently had its share of bad publicity. It’s only since I have started using ZOOM from home that I have removed the little bit of PostIt note covering the lens on my laptop. But right now, they are more relevant and needed more than ever, as we try to stay connected with our friends, loved ones and work colleagues. Their touching new film using crowd sourced content from around the world is a positive force in itself. Mark Zuckerberg recently said he wanted us to have more meaningful connections and this beautiful film demonstrates that. Yes, it shows the effects of Cornona Virus as it tears us apart but it also offers hope and especially to those that may feel totally alone right now.

    Facebook have needed a message like this for a long time and although they have delivered it during dark times the hope and support it offers makes us forgive them. And that is a human thing to do.

    St Luke's: Stay Home Now

    St Lukes StayHomeNow.png

    And finally something very personal from me. An initiative to encourage people to STAY HOME NOW, created simply by reversing the iconic NHS logo. My mum is a retired palliative care nurse and what the NHS is doing right now on the frontline is beyond incredible. A selfless act caring for the sick and putting themselves in danger in order to protect us all. There are far too many complicated messages out there and therefore a clear message from those that matter can hopefully make all the difference. They need us to listen and we must act fast if we are to help save lives including theirs. Stay well 🙏

    Mike Watson, Wunderman Thompson

    Nike: Play at Home

    Nike- Play Inside.jpg

    There are a lot of brands out there who are clumsily trying to acclimatise and be pertinent in these uncertain times with messages like ‘we’re all in it together’ and ‘we’re here to help’ abound. And then there are those brands that simply stay true to their purpose. Like Nike. They may not be building ventilators or offering free pairs of trainers to the NHS, but their Play at Home ad is a great example of how to maintain your branding in a crisis. Well played.

    NoMore: #ListeningFromHome

    Nomore- Listening from Home.jpg

    While most of us are worrying about locating the next roll of toilet paper or how we’re going to home school our kids for the foreseeable future, it’s easy to forget that there are a lot of people who aren’t as lucky. NoMore’s campaign reframes the concept of staying home to stay safe and makes you think about the victims of domestic abuse who now have no breathing space from their abusers. Please lend them your ears.

    Burger King: The Quarantine Whopper

    Burger King- The Quarantine Whopper.jpg

    You don’t always have to be worthy to do good in trying times, sometimes all you need to do is make people smile. I love the simplicity of this idea from Burger King in France – keeping fans engaged by showing them how to recreate their favourite Burger King meals while stuck indoors. "Kids, tonight we’re having Whopper de la Quarantine."




    Last updated 21 September 2020