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Amid COVID-19 uncertainty, humour has kept us going – but I’d hate to see brands involved

During the second world war, I can imagine families in Britain would congregate around the piano or music box to keep themselves entertained. When they talk about the novel coronavirus in schools in years to come, I hope they give a mention to the content creators.

I use the term content creators loosely, however. You see, given that most of us have got a lot more time on our hands, we’ve all become better content creators in a way, pushing each other through with tales of self-isolation and home working hilarity.

It’s a testament to the British way of being able to laugh at ourselves – even as the world burns. And nowhere has this played out more than on WhatsApp, where whole streets and strangers are coming together in group chats to check up on one another and to share memes.

Encrypted fun

As someone who writes about social media daily, it’s rare you see a day where WhatsApp isn’t mentioned alongside fake news in a headline. But, in the UK, coronavirus fake news has become a new content stream in itself.

What started as someone claiming they’d just got off the phone to their mate who’s in the army and who has said to prepare for lockdown has spawned an unknown number of parodies.

The best of these voice clips is from someone claiming that their sister’s boyfriend’s brother works in the MoD, and that soldiers are helping to cook a massive lasagna by turning Wembley Stadium into a giant oven. The lasagna, it claims, will then be divvied up into equal portions and served to the population at large via drone.

An update later that evening assured worried users that our allies in France have got involved and are helping the UK by kneading and baking a giant garlic bread in the Channel Tunnel, cooked by the engines of two Eurostar trains (naturally).

It’s all beyond bizarre, but for many people it’s been exactly what they need. And while it would be a tall order to say laughter can physically combat COVID-19 – age-old studies show humour can boost all-round immunity – it’s ability to trigger endorphins and the positive impact this can have on our mental health shouldn’t be underestimated.

Should brands get in on the joke?

When it comes to WhatsApp, most brands are left out of the joke; it’s almost impossible to measure the success of any content here in the same way you can Twitter and Instagram, which have been equally active with memes, hence the term 'dark social'.

But regardless, is a joke as funny when it comes from a brand? The short answer is that in the right context, it can be. But right now the advice I’d give is to leave it well alone. We mustn't forget we’re in the middle of a pandemic.

In times of crisis, corporations can be weirdly comforting, especially when supply chains are being disrupted and independent businesses are struggling. Perhaps it's something to do with having a by and large non-partisan authority figure outside of politics.

It's something creative directors John Kyriakou and Jon Slater of The Jo(h)ns explain much better: "People are putting their faith in brands. If the public sector can’t and won’t do what needs to be done [supporting the UN's 17 sustainable goals], the only sector left is the private one."

In a telling bit of research from Edelman’s 2019 brand trust barometer, 39% of adults said they trust brands that have always treated them and others well – above privacy and employee welfare. And while only 19% see a correlation between trust and cause marketing, that percentage will almost certainly rise after this (in data on purchase intent, it already has).

Above anything, see this as a time to put trust back into your brand by showing compassion and – if your model allows it – giving away things for free like Barry’s Bootcamp and Headspace have done in the past few days. With any luck, you’ll also be talked about in schools in years to come for your efforts in one of the biggest and most uncertain crises in several generations.

 

Theo Watt, senior copywriter at Social Chain.

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