Is it the pandemic or marketing blunders?

By Jerry W. ThomasPresident and CEO, Decision Analyst

A number of our major clients continue to see downtrends in brand awareness and advertising awareness. COVID-19 and changes in consumer behavior related to the pandemic are the major causal factors but that’s not the whole story.

Retail behavior

Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, after experiencing huge declines in foot traffic during COVID-19 peaks, are beginning to see foot traffic (number of store visits) come back. However, the number of store visits overall still trails the pre-COVID-19 time period in many retail categories. 

When walking down retailers’ aisles, consumers see an array of products, packages and brands. Visits to retail stores help maintain and reinforce brand awareness across a wide array of brands, even if the brand’s labels are not purchased. We don’t normally think of visiting retail stores as exposure to advertising but those packages on the shelves are little billboards advertising the different brands. Walking down the store aisle is analogous to driving down a superhighway and viewing billboards along the roadway. So, as store visits trend upwards, brands should experience some lift in brand awareness, all other factors remaining equal.

Some might argue that shopping online makes up for the lower level of retail store visits. It does to some degree but online search functions allow you to see only what you want to see (and that means exposure to fewer brands). Also, if the online purchases are repetitive (say, for groceries), you might use past purchases as a guide to the next cycle of purchases – again, limiting the number of different brands you will see.

Travel behavior

COVID-19-related reductions in commuting and other driving times have reduced consumers’ exposure to outdoor billboards and signage and reduced exposure to roadside retail establishments. It’s obvious that brand awareness created by outdoor advertising would be negatively affected by reduced auto commuting and other driving. What might be less obvious is the downward pressure on retail store awareness. Retail sites along major highways are chosen partly for their advertising value. Highly visible retail sites tend to build and maintain awareness, while lower levels of traffic reduce the advertising effect of these retail sites. So, reduced travel reduces awareness of restaurant brands, gasoline brands, food stores and most other retailers. Auto traffic is coming back but many consumers still work from home, at least some days, so reduced auto traffic continues to exert some downward pressure on brand awareness.

Media behavior

More time at home during the pandemic is leading to more time in front of the television and online. TV viewership is higher than it was before the coronavirus arrived, at least among the office workers who can work effectively from home. The third to one-half of the population who work in the social-interaction portion of the economy (entertainment, travel, churches, restaurants, hospitals, etc.) or in construction or factories are likely consuming media as they were before COVID-19. Online activity (not work-related) is likewise up since the start of the pandemic. So, it’s likely that TV advertising and digital advertising are as effective – or perhaps more effective – as a result of millions of people working from home. (The one counterpoint is the rapid growth of pre-recorded shows and streaming of shows and movies, where TV commercials do not appear.)

However, a massive shift of advertising dollars from traditional media (especially TV) into the digital arena (social media and online advertising) over the past decade is a major issue. Television is still the highest-impact media for most product/service categories; social media and other digital advertising tend to achieve high frequency but low reach. The shift of media dollars to digital advertising is a major cause of declining brand awareness in many product categories. 


Isolation at home, depression, career changes, job losses, deaths among family and friends, prolonged COVID-19 illnesses, bankruptcies and small-business failures, home-schooling, financial difficulties and divorces/breakups have all created massive stress in the U.S. These heightened stress levels are evident in fights over masks, disruptions on airplanes, erratic driving behaviors, etc. Heightened stress reduces one’s ability to see advertising and absorb new information. While on the surface it might appear that COVID-19 is waning, the residual stress related to the pandemic is still very much alive. 

Advertising effectiveness

The effectiveness of television commercials has declined over the past 20 years or so, as major corporations have reduced research budgets. Reduced ad testing has led to a decline in the effectiveness of TV commercials. Advertising that relies on vetting via the “creative judgment” of marketing and advertising executives, rather than testing among consumers, leads to less effective advertising. These executives tend to have biases and hidden agendas (don’t we all have these weaknesses?) and they possess too much industry, category and technical knowledge to be objectively representative of the target consumer. Consistent testing of commercials and ads among the target audience can identify highly effective campaigns and executions and help companies and agencies improve the effectiveness of all commercials and ads over time. So a lack of consistent ad testing is also reducing the impact of TV commercials.

Digital ads suffer from the same “creative judgment” weaknesses but even more so. The cost to produce digital ads tends to be low, compared to traditional TV commercials, so a smaller share of digital ads goes through any type of independent, objective research testing. The combination of shifting advertising dollars away from television to digital media, combined with the lower effectiveness of digital ads, is contributing to the declining awareness numbers that many brands are experiencing.

There are several good advertising testing systems available from good, reputable companies. The secret to success is choosing a system and sticking with it, so that you and your agency learn how to use and interpret the results from the system. It takes time to build up norms for your brand and your category and learn how to analyze the results from the advertising tests. To be successful, it’s important to set up standards so that every new ad or commercial is tested in exactly the same way, among exactly the same type of sample, using exactly the same system. It’s also important that all commercials be tested at the same level of finish. Rough executions yield different scores, compared to finished commercials. Lastly, no one question can measure ad effectiveness. The scores from different types of questions must be modeled to yield an overall advertising effectiveness measure.

Swallowing pride

Declining brand awareness attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic might fade away as vaccination rates increase and new medicines become available but there are no vaccines for bad advertising – and bad advertising doesn’t seem to produce any antibodies in creative minds. The only “medicines” are consistent ad testing, swallowing one’s pride to accept any negative results and learning over time how to create better advertising. Hopefully, 2022 will see COVID-19 ride off into the sunset. A return to something close to normal in economic and social behavior will provide some lift to brand awareness across many product categories but the ad effectiveness issues will persist.