ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Here's an ad you might not expect to see on TV in this age of vigilant handwashing and hygiene - a full minute of close-up shots of people licking their fingers, even licking each other's fingers, set to a soundtrack of Chopin. The tagline - it's finger-lickin' good.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
(Laughter) That is right. KFC recently debuted that ad before quickly pulling it off the TV. And all that prompted us to wonder what tone companies are trying to strike during this fraught time, so we called up to T.L. Stanley. She wrote about this for Adweek and joins us now from her home in Los Angeles.
TL STANLEY: Thank you so much for having me.
CHANG: So what is going through the minds of advertising directors at this moment?
STANLEY: They want to, if they're going to say anything at all, say the right thing - but very especially, they want to not say the wrong thing.
STANLEY: They don't want to be insensitive. They don't want to be callous or appear flip (ph) about what's happening in the world. They don't want to appear opportunistic at the same time, even though, by definition, they are marketers. So as you can imagine, it's a pretty tough spot to be very in.
CHANG: Oh, yeah, delicate balance there. We mentioned KFC. You also wrote about a Hershey's ad that got canceled. Let's take a listen to a bit of it right now.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning. How are you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you for the chocolate.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You're welcome.
Sharing in person, you get to build that connection. You get that warm feeling...
CHANG: OK (laughter). Just so people can see what is happening here in this ad, there's a guy spontaneously hugging strangers on the street, handing out chocolate bars with his bare hands - not exactly the right message to be sending at this moment. What are, you know, some of the financial risks that companies might be facing right now if they seem tone deaf during this pandemic?
STANLEY: Consumers are rightly watching everything that marketers do right now because advertising is so much part of our pop culture. It's part of our language. It's what we share with each other. It's what we refer to. Everyone knows the cool Super Bowl spots. But you know spots year-round, not just at that time of year. But people are watching. People will take note. They will call you out, and they will remember if you misstep right now.
CHANG: Do you think they'd boycott?
STANLEY: Oh, it's possible.
STANLEY: If you do - if you really - if you do something really offensive, it's possible that you could lose consumers forever.
CHANG: All right, so give us an example of a company that is doing something right at the moment when it comes to advertising.
STANLEY: This morning, Anheuser-Busch put out an ad that is - you can tell that it's been cobbled together with existing footage. I mean, maybe I should say those in advertising can tell it's been cobbled together.
STANLEY: Maybe the general public doesn't necessarily think about it that way, but it's lovely. It has a beautiful soundtrack. It's very spare. It has lovely images, and it talks about Anheuser-Busch's effort to divert money that it would have spent on sports advertising - on events like March Madness and where they would usually buy media.
STANLEY: They're taking that money and diverting it and working with the Red Cross...
CHANG: All right.
STANLEY: ...On blood drives.
CHANG: Well, that sounds excellent. That is T.L. Stanley. She's a senior editor at Adweek.
Thank you very much for joining us.
STANLEY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.