January 26, 2021

Digital Wearout: Pandemic Fatigue Hits Advertising

smart tv remote

It’s harder than ever for advertising messaging to have an impact on target audiences – which is ironic when we all use more screen time than we ever have.

The pandemic has given advertisers more opportunities to reach people online.
Americans are watching much more TV – weekday viewing patterns now mimic those of weekends. And, as we all know, screen time overall is way up across the board. McKinsey noted not only a “further migration to digital” but increases in online entertainment specifically: What took Netflix seven years to achieve, they noted, Disney+ achieved in two months.

Even before 2020, advertising researchers had found that the old ways weren’t working. In March 2019, the Journal of Advertising Research published a study finding “that consumers have a higher threshold for advertising repetition (i.e., more than 10 exposures) than suggested by prior research.”

And as the pandemic set in, our attention spans shriveled further. As cognitive-psychology researcher Beatrice Pudelko put it, “Both anxiety and worry eat up the attention and cognitive resources of working memory.” We learned that Zoom fatigue is real, taxing our brains more than in-person interactions in a variety of ways. All of these stressors – worry about the pandemic, politics, and more; navigating the world in new ways, mostly virtually … it all exacerbated existing mental health issues and lowered resilience.

Advertisers clumsily aim for empathy “in these uncertain times.”
Advertisers tried to keep up with the times… with mixed success. As Amanda Mull wrote in The Atlantic, “pandemic advertising got weird fast.” “Disastertising,” as she called it, included everything from automakers offering online purchases to “Domino’s and Papa John’s remind[ing] viewers that the heat of pizza ovens annihilates germs.”

Words like “unprecedented” became mental wallpaper, as did phrases like “we’re in this together” and “we’re here for you,” as brands sought to convince consumers that spending was caring – caring for themselves and their families, and also for the economy.

Then political advertising joined the chat. And the ad landscape got even messier, all while Americans wrangled isolation, unrest, and generally increasing unpredictability. It became clear that platitudes were not the solution. As Mull put it, “Americans [were] eager for practical information and opportunities to help, not solemn vows of corporate togetherness.”

Reach audiences in real ways as the pandemic presses on.
Mull’s sentence rings true: We don’t want any more chummy promises; we want help. And this sentiment was actually borne out by data before the pandemic began. The authors of the above-mentioned 2019 study opined that affective, emotional approaches to advertising would be effective when consumers were seeing an ad only once or twice, but “when advertisers are targeting consumers who have seen a campaign three to 10 times on average, they should use messaging focused on the features and benefits of the brand.”

In “What Matters Most: The Trends that Will Shape Pharma Marketing in 2021,” we discussed five interrelated aspects of the pandemic’s effects, all of which are relevant here as we face the increased barriers to engagement with our target customers:

  • Media and tech: facilitating communication
  • Location independence: virtual virtuosity
  • Relationships despite digital congestion
  • Questioning systems and doubt in institutions
  • Trust and wellness: what we believe and how we feel

Download the complete POV for our thoughts on how these facets of our changing world are affecting individuals, business organizations, and the life-sciences industry overall.