The Gate’s Florence Holmes: how crisis advertising can make us less WEIRD

Jonathan Haidt thinks everyone who grew up in the UK is weird. That is, we see the world through the lens of a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic culture.

For WEIRD people, morals are mostly confined to the ethics of our own autonomy, as Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind – published in 2012 in the US but disconcertingly relevant in post-Brexit Britain. We are individualistic, focussed on the pursuit of our own wants and needs over our roles in collective entities, and inclined to see the world as made up of separate objects, rather than relationships.

Coronavirus is disrupting our individualistic culture in ways many of us have never experienced before. The past couple of months have surfaced the need to behave as a cohesive group in order to stop the spread of the virus, while people who behave with a ‘me first’ agenda are vilified by the press for selfishness.

In adland, challenging WEIRD culture with collective-oriented messaging has long been deployed to gain an outsize share of attention. Coca-Cola’s 1971 ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ ad had its iconic status cemented by being featured in the final episode of Mad Men.

More recently, Nike’s ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’, and HSBC’s ‘We are Not an Island’ (below) inspired praise and criticism with equal passion. The Washington Post took advantage of the Super Bowl’s mass co-viewing to launch its rallying cry for knowledge as freedom, while Airbnb put community participation at the centre of its Australian ‘Country Pub Project’.

There’s a reason this anti-individualist approach endures across time and geography, and Kevin Simler calls it cultural imprinting. Some brands persuade by changing the “landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product.” When we see the ad, we know others do too, and this generates a collective (yet often unspoken) understanding of the brand’s meaning.

Out of Home and cinema ads provide the perfect environment for brands to leverage cultural imprinting, and those channels (cinema anyway) aren’t currently available to us. There are, however, still opportunities to speak to consumers as more than isolated individuals pursuing our own agendas.

Tesco’s ‘Dedications’ – which celebrates people cooking for each other in lockdown – takes advantage of increased TV co-viewing and spikes in recipe searches to build on consumers’ shared memory structures around ‘Food Love Stories.’. The work remains on-brand while acknowledging changing attitudes to togetherness, and Tesco’s call for consumer collaboration means it can continue to evolve the media execution.

Whenever restrictions lift, we won’t see an instant bounce back to WEIRD norms in people’s interactions. The inevitably messy readjustment period will provide its own opportunity for brands to demonstrate how they strengthen bonds between people, and to be creative with the media in which they do it.

Florence Holmes is a comms planning manager at The Gate London.

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