In the early days of the pandemic, a trend emerged of TV ads with inspirational music mentioning that brands are "here for you" and describing what they're doing during "unprecedented times."
But YouTube advertisers mostly avoided the trend.
"80% of the ads that we saw in April were not Covid-related; they were straight-up ads," said Tara Walpert Levy, VP of agency and media solutions at Google and YouTube.
What's more, Covid-themed ads did not perform any better than regular ads on the site.
She said the company looked at factors like what people watched and how they engaged, as well as brand metrics like consideration or brand preference. Surprisingly, YouTube found that Covid-specific ads performed no better or worse than regular ads.
"We were surprised not to see more of a correlation with Covid-specific messaging," Walpert Levy said, speaking during a virtual seminar hosted by YouTube and MediaLink.
The advertising industry is already dealing with advertisers cutting back or delaying marketing spending, and it's bracing for worse, as advertising is often one of the first items that businesses cut during a financial downturn.
But Google and its YouTube unit have so far been fairly resilient. Google-parent Alphabet said during its first quarter earnings call that direct-response advertising saw substantial year-on-year growth even as brand advertising slowed in mid-March as the pandemic forced lockdowns around the world. YouTube ad revenue grew 33% in the quarter year-over-year.
Although advertisers are not making many Covid-specific ads for YouTube, they've still tailored their messages for the moment — restaurants have pivoted to advertising about delivery, while retailers are highlighting curbside pickup, for instance.
They just aren't the kind of commercials about the pandemic that quickly became the subject of parody.
YouTube saw "all sorts of things that are appropriate to the moment, but aren't beautiful music and empty streets and some of the stuff we saw originally around the haloing of heroes," Walpert Levy said.
"Those ads weren't bad; they did good things and I think they really connected with people at a good moment, we were surprised not to see more impact. I think it may have been because everybody rushed to that… It's harder to distinguish if you're not more focused on your brand and how that authentically connects."
The pandemic has forced advertisers to scale down production to keep people safe, which has affected the look and feel of many ads. Ford, for instance, mixed archival footage with new footage shot with a much scaled-down crew for its new ad campaign. JPMorgan Chase said its process was cut down from months to days for a recent campaign, which features the company's advisors speaking to clients virtually from home.
Walpert Levy said these simpler ads can be a positive for brands, which have typically opted for high-quality, beautiful commercial shoots.
"We're seeing, by necessity, a lot more scrappy production," she said. "You know that's something brands have historically worried a lot about, in terms of how that would affect perception or results…Those have performed as strongly or better than many of the other ads."
She mentioned one ad from Ryan Reynolds for mobile wireless provider Mint Mobile that "couldn't be more scrappy."
"It's one of the highest performing ads right now," she said.