Why Coronavirus Is Shaping Up to Be the Third Rail of Marketing

Spooking consumers into spending money is never a good idea

Disinfecting products are already flying off shelves, and customers don’t need to be scared into buying more. Getty Images

Key Insights

The casual observer might be tempted to think the burgeoning coronavirus crisis represents a rare marketing or advertising opportunity. After all, if a brand happens to already make a product that cleans, disinfects and kills germs, wouldn’t it be logical to fortify that messaging by talking about a product’s efficacy against the coronavirus?

In theory, perhaps. But in practice? Not so much.

A canvas of the websites and social media accounts of products like Clorox, Lysol and Purell reveals only highly restrained, detached messaging regarding the coronavirus. Other products—Dial’s antibacterial soap, Method’s household cleaners, Fantastik—omit any mentions of the virus at all.

According to Allen Adamson, founder of marketing firm Metaforce and adjunct professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, such moderation makes sense.

“Mentioning the virus is like touching the third rail—no marketer should go near it,” Adamson said.

There are a several reasons for this, but foremost is simple optics. With the level of fear growing among the populace, a product that bleats too loudly about its efficacy against a feared virus risks looking opportunistic.

“We are providing educational information on our website and responding to people on social media regarding prevention tips,” a Clorox spokesperson told Adweek, but that is as far as the company is willing to go. “What we don’t do,” he added, “is market to fear.”

For its part, S.C. Johnson—maker of household cleaning products including Scrubbing Bubbles, Mrs. Meyer’s and Method—has engaged in cause marketing, but not the overt kind.

“We are deeply concerned for all those people who have been impacted by this disease,” senior director of global public affairs Stephen Hogan told Adweek. “To date, we have donated 1 million yuan [roughly $143,000] to the Red Cross in China and will continue to provide both monetary and product support as this outbreak develops.”

Meanwhile, those brands that do address the coronavirus directly have opted to exercise considerable restraint when they do. On its website, Lysol has posted a stand-alone section (complete with a video) on understanding coronavirus, but the text goes on for over 500 words before even mentioning the Lysol brand name. Even when it does, the copy has all the hallmarks of having been vetted by the legal department. The company states only that some Lysol products have “demonstrated effectiveness against viruses similar” to the coronavirus—and only on hard, nonporous surfaces.

Clorox, too, furnishes an extensive section on understanding the virus and its symptoms, waiting until the very end to tuck in a few mentions of Clorox products that have, like Lysol, demonstrated effectiveness against viruses similar to the coronavirus.

This level of syntactical caution is, most likely, not an accident. Last week, the FDA sent a warning to GoJo, which makes Purell, for claiming its hand sanitizer “may be effective against viruses.” Even that anodyne wording, it seems, got too close to a health-related claim that was, the FDA said, unsupported by recognized clinical studies. In response, GoJo issued a statement saying that “we have begun updating relevant website and other digital content as directed by the FDA.”

(Curiously, the Centers of Disease control advises on its own coronavirus information page that people should wash their hands with soap and water “or clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.”)

But the biggest reason why brands are generally refraining from coronavirus marketing messages is that such verbiage simply isn’t needed.

“The overall disinfecting wipes category is up, and we’re seeing strong consumption of Clorox Disinfecting Wipes in the last couple of weeks,” the spokesperson said, adding that the company has increased production to meet demand. Many products like face masks and hand sanitizers are already out of stock.

“[These brands] don’t need more demand creation,” Adamson said. “They’re already having to run factories 24/7 to keep up with demand.”

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.