Business as unusual amid COVID-19
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Sitting in Mumbai, going through its virulent second wave and in lockdown again, I have a sense of déjà vu. It is coupled with a sense of how much has changed from a year ago. The New Normal has become the Old Normal and we have all changed. My class of advertising students will graduate in May without us ever having met in person. A year ago, I would have scoffed at this because in April, we thought June or July was as far as the pandemic would last.

A year ago, I wrote that communication in the time of crisis was like walking on a slippery slope. You have to hit the right note. This is when we were still examining and feeling our way around the term ‘lockdown’. I was discussing ad film maker Prasoon Pandey’s film Family which had created a buzz on social media. Asking people to stay at home until further notice? Social distancing? What did that even mean? Prasoon’s film roped in Bollywood’s finest to play passing-the-parcel with a pair of sunglasses and the reveal at the end - that no one stepped out of their homes or met the others in the making of the film - was a skillfully created trompe d’oeil to reinforce social distancing and staying at home. It was very popular on YouTube with over two million views on Day 1 and I am told that even director Ridley Scott called up to congratulate Prasoon on his neat remote-control direction and home editing. It made a potentially scary concept engaging and light.

Later, Ogilvy’s film MaskUp India co-opted our men and women in blue to urge people to wear masks and become part of Team India, playing for the same side. I am not sure which is a more alien concept for us Indians – masking or social distancing. But to mask up socially, when meeting loved ones or when going about daily chores, at the grocers, at the local bread shop, at the bank?? A tough ask because we didn’t know enough. Ogilvy’s film wasn’t alone – newspapers, reportage, social media influencers urged us to stay masked. Today, both social distancing and masks are concepts that are mainstream even if they are not always adhered to. Like the vaccine, a booster shot of communication may be required.


It has been a steep learning curve. We learnt the difference between N 95 and K 95 masks, triple-layered masks and cloth masks. We may even have a collection of Monday to Friday masks for our Zoom meetings. We have learnt to WFH, we have pivoted, we have Zoomed. We have learnt to change ourselves mid-stride because we had no choice. It has been a year of many tragedies and horrifying news but also a year where we have seen smart innovations and smart thinking. We have learnt that the virus is smarter than us but we are catching up fast. Unlike the slow burn of consumer habit change - it took 10 years for sunscreen to become a daily habit and five years for breakfast cereal to become the norm - we have had no choice but leapfrog into behaviour change.

The best communication has been from brands that have helped keep us grounded, to reassure us that we are in it together. Burger King UK created a warm empathetic witty film #CouchPatriots urging people to do their national duty by staying home. The film is shot entirely tongue-in-cheek and still manages to make its point.

Guinness reassured its fans that it had signed a 900-year lease on production so a few months of lockdown wouldn’t matter. Uber thanked people in its ads for not riding – counter-productive for business, but great for relationship building. Facebook’s Pooja Milk Centre ad may be more familiar to Indian readers. A heart-warming ad in which a young woman employs all the people who have lost their jobs in the pandemic in her small sweet shop at a loss to her business. It all works out and tugs at your heartstrings at the end because as Facebook reminds us, we are in this together.


Somewhere we got a bit careless and forgot about sustaining this kind of communication. Now in this second wave, conspiracy theories abound, norms are flouted and there is misinformation and fear about vaccines and mutations. It is time for some powerful communication. It is time for the Government, brands and advertising creatives to give us one more round of persuasive communication assuring us that we are all in this together and this time, double-masking may help.

(The author has been Regional Creative Director, Ogilvy and has devoted many column inches and years to advertising and brands.)

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