Madeleine and Sherry trawl through their overrun ‘promotions’ tab on gmail and put their copious scrolling time on social media to good use: because even an pandemic isn’t immune to being #marketable #commercialised and #girlbossed.
On the likely chance you’ve checked your email in the last few weeks, you’ve probably noticed an endless stream of companies sliding into your inbox, expressing empathy for this “very hard time the world is going through.” You’ve probably also received a dozen others from the same brand, promoting ‘essential items’ for staying in, such as face masks (the slipper skin care kind) loungewear, activewear, novelty socks and slippers. Everything advertised is easy and cosy, great for those lazy days spent on the couch watching Netflix. This sensibility is slipping into the material of our everyday scroll, with influencers pushing sponsored content onto our Instagram feeds. Cotton On Body just gets us – time to grab another pair of sweats to #stayhome in! 40% off!
With so much of our attention turned online during the pandemic, cyberspace is a valuable tool for advertisers. To make up for the lack of buyers heading in store, companies turn to inboxes, paid ads in news feeds and (often insensitive) influencer collaborations. The narrative and image spun by so many revolves around home life ‘essentials’ (pastel colours and cotton textures), with every new email providing a hit of déjà vu. The allure of online shopping is strong. A nice distraction from work and normal practice in our everyday lives. But it seems the public has noticed the flow of ads, swapping jokes about the weirdest COVID-19 email they’ve received. Does Glassons really care how we’re doing?
We talked to Alex, a marketing associate in a NZ owned and manufactured company currently supplying our supermarket stores. They got briefed to double the marketing expenditure. At first they were surprised, reflecting the sentiment we’re all thinking, isn’t this all a bit insensitive? But the advice given was that consumers are still buying things, just differently. And they had to stay relevant and hold presence as a brand, or they weren’t going to ‘survive’ the pandemic.
Loungewear and pyjama sales have more than doubled, nail polish sales rose by 24% and luxury brands followed suit. This is the ‘lipstick effect,’ as consumers spend on small luxuries (since when is Chanel a small luxury?), rather than spending big in times of economic crisis. Mecca Cosmetica gave no fucks, and emailed us: “To say we’re in a wierd, stressful time is an understatement. If that stress is starting to show on your skin, here’s what to do,” and for just $131 we can heal all our problems with a Dr Dennis Gross B3Adaptive SuperFoods Stress Rescue Super Serum.
It’s worth noting who the implied customers are when we discuss the ‘lipstick effect.’ Self-care has become a heavily gendered term, and corporate ideas of beauty-based maintenance generally target young women. It’s soft pink loungewear, facemasks and slippers. Beauty brands tell women that a stressful lockdown caused by a global pandemic infecting over 2 million people is the perfect opportunity to practice self-care and watch a rom-com.
Hats off to Ruby who convinced one of us to buy sewing patterns, even though soft tech in intermediate school was a shit show and a half. And even if a PR company wrote the sweet ‘authentic’ messages from the RUBY CEO about empathy, supporting our essential workers, community, learning new skills and looking after our loved ones, it worked. However, other companies have really missed the mark. Shout out to DICK SMITH who sent us big yellow emails informing us “IN HIGH DEMAND, trending now!” with pictures of Dettol, thermometers, face masks and disposable gloves. Really Dick? We thought all the health professionals and community workers were just throwing a hissy fit about the issues of distribution with PPE gear. We thought China, Italy, the US were just being babies. Thanks for the reminder!
Alex tells us that they are encouraged to push narratives of helping and inspiring the community, especially looking into charity initiatives. But it’s a fine balance of doing good, and not looking like you are using the pandemic to “toot your own horn.” Grin Natural, an NZ oral hygiene brand, has been helping to make care packages for essential workers. Alex says, even with genuine considerations, Grin would only ever post content by reposting a story if, for example, a nurse shared it themself on their own personal social media. Because “man, it could land really badly. Even us, we are checking all our captions, and write-ups ten times for tone.”
Marketers aren’t necessarily evil, they’re kinda just storytellers who make a lot more money than us writers. But Alex is pretty exasperated at Corona Beer’s exploitation of the situation. The name similarity is pretty unfortunate but “pictures of people on holiday? And #thisisliving, that’s just tone deaf. It’s honestly a slap in the face.”
The question rises then, is there even a change in marketing techniques? The core process of selling a product stands strong. Find a customer, project a lifestyle they might want to live, associate it with the product and then, SELL! Sure, some brands are adapting smarter during this very weird time, but terrible things are always happening in the world. We’ve both lived most of our lives post-9/11, so a general state of crisis is very familiar. COVID-19 is unique in the way it has affected us globally, pushing so many people into their homes and drastically altering work-driven lifestyles. Perhaps the limitations on our movement through a capitalist space has created a very specific and popular niche for brands to fill, making their techniques increasingly similar to each other. It’s very likely that as our internet use and financial awareness increases during COVID, we’ve become ultra aware of marketing trends and seeing the process for what it has always been.
Fair enough, we’ve got a generally robust government that’s taking the lockdown seriously. Iconic is an Australian based company, so the context they are working in is different, with Scott Morrison taking some solid heat for his slower response to COVID-19. But is it really helpful when brands are pushing messages of self-iso to sell things? What does it mean when Iconic.com has reappropriated #stayhome, so the whole experience is summed up to links to item lists of WFH (Working from home) footwear, Obsession: Blue Light Filters, and Boredom Busters.
#stayhome is a hashtag utilised by those allied to the immunosuppressed and other people vulnerable to the virus. The hashtag has found immense popularity in communities of essential workers, like supermarket workers, who are trying to protect themselves as they carry out their important work. In the USA, the phrase is being used by doctors and health workers standing up against people who continue to ignore warnings. To reappropriate #stayhome into a mass marketing statement or use it as a quick add to the caption for a sponsored Instagram post means the phrase becomes a rake for profits. It’s up to the consumer to decide how they might feel about that.
It’s disconcerting seeing an influencer flash wealth and luxury during this time. However, the concept of a perfect life has always been flawed. If you are from a privileged group, this might have been a confronting wake up call. But being trapped at home, having limited resources, and a heightened risk to physical health, have always been a realities for many vulnerable communities.
In a recent article with Newsroom, Dr Ian Hyslop writes of “scenes of privileged families locked down with their designer kitchens and overflowing pantries obscuring some serious social suffering from those less well-off.” Before we threw a global pandemic into the mix, 1 in 5 children in New Zealand already lived in poverty. While some are out there panic buying supplies to feed a small village of 4, other families have lost their primary source of income when the weekly shop was already tight. Even with a wage subsidy from the government, the country’s financial situation is uncertain. The image pushed forward in many different marketing campaigns presents #workfromhome as a leisurely activity, supported by a certain amount of wealth.
Some of us aren’t able to jump into lockdown with shiny laptops, fast wi-fi and insulated homes. Hospitality, retail and tourism are taking a massive hit. As students, some of us are graduating into a global economic recession. Some of us may have taken some time off from uni to look after whānau. Others are still studying, preparing for exams online despite the disruption. Xenophobia and racism is bubbling to become more visible at the surface. Families are being disrupted and lives are still being lost every day from the pandemic. To be bombarded with the image of relaxing influencers, white, wealthy and #woke, leaves a pretty bad taste in the mouth.
This world, as of right now, is run by money and competition. We understand many of these bigger brands are trying their best and have families they are supporting through jobs. Marketing is an integral part of business, but there are campaigns that are certain to be disruptive and troubling during a heightened time of crisis. Fast fashion and beauty brands co-opting #stayathome are particularly off-putting but, unfortunately, effective in their techniques. The Instagram influencers and corporate giants might be the last ones standing amongst the post-COVID rubble. As a particularly vulnerable group at the moment, students don’t exactly have the power to disrupt and challenge raging late capitalism. We got an extra $1000 (pay it back though!) which isn’t quite enough to protect business on the home front. However, some action online is providing us with a bit of hope.
Small businesses in NZ are certain to face a major hit in the coming months. Communities online are already rallying support for local business, with cries to avoid the use of Uber Eats, due to the 30% commission rates taken by the app. This is an exciting call, as it means larger groups within our communities are rejecting convenience with a moral interest. Perhaps if people were to carry forward that support and reinvest in small businesses during level 3, we could help keep each other afloat. From a distance, of course.