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Coronavirus – FAQs for advertisers

11 March 2020

With the number of cases of the coronavirus (Covid-19) continuing to climb, the financial markets are showing signs of strain and some businesses are already feeling the impact of decreased consumer spending in some areas.

Some products are in high demand, and the situation is changing daily as we all adapt to the (hopefully short term) effects of the coronavirus. 

In addition to their own internal contingency planning, many businesses will want to simply acknowledge the coronavirus in their marketing and external-facing comms in a responsible and authentic way. Some will need to communicate updates and guidance to consumers on a regular basis, such as those in the travel and hospitality sectors. Others, including makers and retailers of hand sanitisers and facemasks, but also cupboard basics such as tinned goods and loo paper, may be tempted to take advantage of the unique ‘opportunities’ it presents.

This brief Q&A sets out some top tips for brands considering referencing coronavirus in their advertising, marketing, social posts or other communications.

Is it ok to refer to the coronavirus?

Coronavirus (or COVID-19) is quickly becoming a fact of life, albeit hopefully a temporary one, and there is no ban on referring to the coronavirus or COVID-19 in advertising or comms. However, such references must be made responsibly and handled with care.  

In broad terms, this is expected to be a temporary global issue, and those who behave irresponsibly or attempt to ‘cash in’ will surely be sacrificing long term credibility for short term gain.  Businesses should keep in mind their long-term strategic objectives and brand values. For new businesses, this might be the first serious test of those objectives and values. Their long-term credibility depends on their success in navigating these short-term issues.

When it comes to advertising and marketing, the UK advertising codes (CAP Code and BCAP Code) require that all advertisements are legal, decent, honest and truthful and that they are prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society.

How are recent coronavirus adverts being regulated?

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which enforces the advertising codes in the UK, has been quick to act in relation to some of the more obvious and unscrupulous examples of businesses which have cynically attempted to take advantage of the current outbreak.  

During the first week of March, the ASA upheld complaints against Easy Shopping 4 Homes Ltd and a series of ads by Novads OU trading as Oxybreath Pro, all of which had appeared online in February. Neither of these companies cooperated with or responded to the ASA when it was investigating these matters. The ASA challenged whether the ads were “misleading, irresponsible and scaremongering”. The ASA was quick to ban the ads and to publish detailed rulings setting out their decision. 

What are platforms doing to crack down on irresponsible advertising? 

Platforms (including Facebook and Amazon) and aggregators of advertising content have also been quick to update their own guidance and rules to stamp out advertisements which refer to the coronavirus and which create a sense of urgency, like implying a limited supply of the product.  Many such platforms are actively monitoring not only their main ad space, but also marketplaces where individual consumers sell directly to other consumers.

In addition to creating a false sense of urgency, some advertisers are going as far as to falsely promote cures or products which are claimed to prevent infection.  This kind of behaviour is also very likely to result in swift action by platforms as well as an upheld ruling by the ASA.

How can I promote products that reduce exposure risk?

It is accepted that some products do play a role in reducing the risk or extent of the spread of the disease, such as hand sanitisers.  Consumers are being encouraged to use these products, however, their promotion should be handled with extra care.  

In addition to warning advertisers to avoid making misleading claims, exaggerating the limited nature of stock availability and generally ‘scaremongering’, at the time of writing, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has told retailers not to ‘exploit’ fears about coronavirus by hiking up the price of protective products like hand gels.  The CMA has said that it is monitoring sales and pricing practices, and would take action against those who break the law. Chief Executive Officer of the CMA, Andrea Coscelli, urges retailers to "behave responsibly", and has reminded members of the public who resell goods on online marketplaces that some obligations might apply to them too.  The CMA has threatened to take "direct enforcement action" if necessary, and it is considering whether it is necessary or appropriate to ask the government to introduce price controls for some goods.

In the meantime, online retailers such as Amazon are also taking steps to tackle exploitative pricing practices.  Amazon has removed listings for tens of thousands of overpriced health products offered by unscrupulous sellers, and says it has banned more than a million products which claimed to protect against (or even cure!) the coronavirus.

There are also various rules in the UK advertising codes that reflect legal obligations. For example, advertisements must not mislead consumers, either by presenting information in a way which is misleading or confusing, or by exaggeration, or by leaving out important information that the consumer needs to make an informed decision.  For all claims which an advertiser makes which are capable of being proven, it is the advertiser’s responsibility to hold adequate proof to show that such claims are true and not misleading.  Such proof cannot be cobbled together after the event, but must be held at the time the claims are actually made. 

And finally…

Panic buying is on the rise as the reach of coronavirus spreads across the globe.  Advertisers have a responsibility to respond to consumer demand with responsible, rational and truthful content. The ASA and CMA have made clear that they will not tolerate inaccurate, opportunistic advertising and commercial practices that are designed to take advantage of consumers by stoking fears.  But what about the consumer?  Consumers tend to have long memories and, ultimately, advertisers need to think beyond the current outbreak and have an eye on maintaining long-term brand values and brand loyalty.

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