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Evolving Cultural Norms during COVID-19

Culture is fluid. It shapes how we interact and how we perceive the world around us. The United States is incredibly culturally diverse but also has unifying values, such as liberty and agency. Certain events, such as the course of and reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, can create a domino effect that may change how we interact and what we value. Tracking these changes would certainly inform us of best business and marketing strategies in the upcoming years. 

Learning from Our Past

A study done on the reaction to the 2009 H1N1 outbreak provides insight into how people’s views changed as a result of the virus. For one thing, they found that actions to help sick people before the outbreak focused on the individual whereas after, tended to benefit public health. There was also a shift in the beliefs about preventative measures from hygiene towards the production and distribution of vaccines. Generally speaking, the outbreak caused an increase in more positive views about vaccines.

What has changed since 2009

There are, of course, many differences between the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 and the current coronavirus pandemic. In terms of COVID-19, the emphasis on individual responsibility towards the health and well-being of others is even stronger. This has caused a shift in the social norms that govern our behavior patterns as a group. In uncertain times, people look to each other for cues on how to behave. This disruption provides fertile grounds for rapid changes in behavioral norms. For example, at the beginning of the outbreak, stockpiling was a big issue because the norm people were following was ‘every person for themselves,’ and again, people did it because they saw that others were doing it too. This is a normal response to a very stressful situation as it gives people a sense of control. What we’ve seen so far is stockpiling toilet paper, hygiene products like hand sanitizers, gloves, and masks.

More recently we have seen a shift towards self-care products such as nail kits and hair dyes. Now, you see a lot more shaming of people for breaking social distancing norms as we come to embrace the idea that acting selfishly hurts everyone. Additionally, we see an increase in encouragement for social distancing behaviors, “I’m staying home, you should too.” This combination of shame and encouragement makes it much easier for people to follow the group and stay away from one another. 

This shift towards cooperation and a more collective mindset has already been seen reflected in various ads over the past month. Many recent advertisements emphasize messages of solidarity and are relating to their customers on a more personal level. For example, a recent Amazon ad showed a child drawing a chalk rainbow to thank the delivery worker for the risk he is taking working during this time. We should expect more person-centered ads in the near future as we are dealing with the pains of separation but also knowing we are doing what we need to do to keep each other safe.

How social media plays in

Another key difference between 2009 and now is a much heavier use of social media. This shift towards the virtual influences both how information is shared and introduces another social platform to impose norms. Recent studies have shown that social media use is related to better risk perception of COVID-19. This could explain some countries’ rapid responses to the epidemic. That being said, there are also some drawbacks to social media use such as rapid spread of misinformation and panic. COVID-19 has also had an impact on social media use. Activity on social media increased by a factor of 50 in early March, the start of quarantine for a lot of countries. As such, it has become an increasingly lucrative platform for advertisements. From ads for fashionable face-masks to various self-care products, companies are taking advantage of the increased social media usage. We can expect, for the next little while but perhaps also long-term, a push towards digital ways of connecting with customers. For example, AT&T telecommunications company recently released an ad highlighting the importance of cellphones and video chatting during social-distancing protocols. Again, with the message that staying connected is key during these times.

Next phase: re-opening businesses

The next phase of the response to COVID-19 has to do with plans to re-open businesses. Many countries are sorting out their plans to start potentially in May. One thing that seems to be emphasized is flexibility in plans based on outbreak patterns. They expect that there will be more outbreaks regardless of what we do and that could change week by week. So essentially, we are going to shift from a norm of staying in and putting businesses on hold to one of rapid adaptability and strict adherence to government mandates. It’s hard to predict how people will follow-suit but having a pre-established norm of listening to the advice of the government and health officials reinforced by messaging from ads and social media paves the way for a cautious group effort to try to deconfine safely.

Most likely, 2020 will be a challenging year in terms of maintaining good marketing strategies. People will likely need encouragement to feel safe visiting stores again. Advertisers are going to need to pay attention to both the changing policy and people’s reactions to these changes. Always taking the perspective of the audience is a good approach, which again, falls in line with a shift towards more person-centered campaigns. For our own voiceover businesses, this means closely following these trends and adapting our performance and business metrics to follow suit.

Much love and Keep on rockin' your biz.



About the Author: Anne Ganguzza is a full-time voice talent and award-winning director and producer who works with students to develop their voice over and business skills - including VO demo training and production. She specializes in Conversational Commercial and Narration styles, including Corporate, E-Learning, Technology, Healthcare - Medical, Telephony, and On-Hold.  Located in Orange County, CA, Anne offers private coaching and mentoring services to students in person and via Skype, ipDTL or Zoom.  



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