COVID-19 Update: To Mask or Not to Mask in Advertising?

By Desiree Homer

Dealers have been easing back into business, and with traditional marketing to re-engage those car buyers who may have been hunkering down in recent months. For a while, many retailers and automakers shifted their messaging to reflect the pandemic conditions, safety best practices, and payment flexibility options. But now, as more consumers begin to experience shutdown fatigue, many are venturing back to shopping habits and recreation, as usual, throwing caution to the wind. So, should dealers be advertising those safety best practices and requiring masks? Mike Boyd, the founder of iReconCars, says, “dealers better be honed in,” in a recent Dealer News Today podcast episode.

The Science Says Caution Is the Order of the Day

A lot is going on right now. States are trying to reopen economies and keep their hospitals fully stocked with supplies. Summer weather is luring consumers from their tired shelter-in-place activities in droves (lest we forget those Lake of the Ozarks videos). And now, there is a movement driving thousands to take to the streets in social protest. But it’s important to remember, no matter what is going on in your neck of the woods, the novel Coronavirus doesn’t care. Scientists and epidemiologists are urging caution and reminding the public that while our gazes are venturing elsewhere, the virus is still posing a threat to public health. There has been about a two-week lag from activity to positive case results. And despite the virus models being informational only, they indicate there is potential for a resurgence of cases come this fall. There is enough of a risk that dealers will want to be mindful now, to avoid having to shutter the dealerships again later.

Many Consumers Are Anti-Mask 

There is a growing sentiment among many consumers that masks aren’t necessary, don’t help, or are politically motivated. Dealer owners know that smart business means avoiding some of those hot button topics. But in your efforts to be safe, are your requirements for masks on the showroom deterring potential customers? You’ve no doubt heard the public outcry against other businesses that enforce safety policies. The YouTube videos of angry customers who were turned away from shopping because they refused to wear masks, or in some cases, wanted to shop with their children in tow, are abundant. Matt VanDyke, director of U.S. marketing for Ford, shared his experience in the polarizing mask issue. He says there are two camps, those who continue to think wearing masks is important and those who aren’t ready to embrace masks in advertising, nor on the showrooms.

Designing A Strategy that Speaks to Both Camps

To avoid isolating either base of consumers, dealers may want to consider a marketing and advertising strategy that straddles the line. The public may not be ready for ads featuring car shoppers in masks. But there are ways to promote mask-wearing safety initiatives without subscribing to either side of the public argument. It may be best to resume traditional advertising with a ‘business as usual’ message. In tandem with those campaigns, consider leveraging the social media and target email ads, with more of a safety approach. Encouraging shoppers to wear masks once they’ve set foot through your door can be an option. But for those who prefer not to wear a mask, instead encourage a social distancing approach and offer up the hand sanitizer. Derek Baker, the consumer markets partner with PwC, says that while brands do need to be cautious in rethinking their messaging plans, marketers really need to be focused on targeting “the next horizon” and prepare to “address demand when recovery returns.”

A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to advertising isn’t going to work right now. Instead, dealers can be customizing the visuals and messaging within their ads, to stay attractive to mask wearers and non-mask wearers. Flexibility will prove to be the successful path to bringing the car buyers back.