When David Thomason decided to sell his 1999 Toyota Hiace, he knew he had to be creative.

With recent declines in the tourism industry and restrictions of movement in place, competition was going to be fierce, with many people vying against each other to offload their vehicles.

As the chief strategist at ad agency FCB, Thomason drew on his experience and reimagined an old, clunky vehicle with 200,000km on the clock as an "Apocalypse Van'.

"With the Apocalypse Van you're ready for any challenge Covid-19 throws at you," said his online ad with accompanying pictures of the van.

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"No one knows why, but hoarding toilet paper is one of those challenges. The Apocalypse Van can securely store 3888 standard bog rolls, ready for action."

The ad goes on:

"The spacious Apocalypse Van comfortably accommodates you, your loved ones and 500 cans of baked beans at a moment's notice. And with a mere 223,000 km on the clock, this dependable beast should keep you out of trouble for at least another 150,000."

The ad for David Thomason's 'Apocalypse Van'. Image / File
The ad for David Thomason's 'Apocalypse Van'. Image / File

What's interesting about this quirky little ad is that it comes at a time when the nation's marketing departments have shut down.

Ads have been pulled across channels and many brands are reluctant to promote anything for fear of how they might be perceived by Kiwis during this tough period.

In lieu of the usual efforts by companies to standout, we're now seeing an influx of generic messages on everyone's response to Covid-19. Who would've thought the day would come that you'd get an almost-identical email from your hairdresser, an electronics retailer and hardware store?

Thomason tells the Herald he isn't surprised by the reticence among brands to do anything unique at the moment.

"You don't want to be out there with a hilarious brand message as if nothing's going on," he says.

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But that doesn't mean you have to be boring.

The creative opportunity, argues Thomason, exists in how companies can be relevant in the current context.

"I think the really big opportunity is for brands who have some relevance in terms of helping people in these times," Thomason says.

"If you can get your audience to say 'Ah, you get me, you know what I'm going through right now' then that's a good thing."

Individuals are already doing this across social media, finding a number of creative ways to have a laugh at the utterly absurd environment we currently find ourselves in. Songs, weird life hacks and, yes, apocalypse vans have all emerged in this weird time to lighten the mood and remind viewers that we're all in this together.

These creative efforts are steadily defining the lines of appropriateness and Thomason expects companies to start experimenting in the coming weeks.

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"People will always use humour and escapism to get through difficult times. It's just what has always happened," he says.

Some brands will get it right and others will get it wrong, but this is the nature of advertising. Being creative always involves an element of risk, even when the economy is ticking along without the weight of the pandemic.

'Together we cam'

Two weeks ago, the marketing team at 2degrees was applying the finishing touches to an advertising campaign that was months in the making.

The launch date was set and everything was good to go, but then the pandemic situation escalated and the entire idea had to be spiked and put on ice until a later stage.

This is just one of a number of major brands that have gone through a similar issue in recent weeks, making similarly tough decisions to pause all their marketing on highly anticipated campaigns. In the process, work has dried up for many freelancers, and creatives across the industry face enormous uncertainty as they wait for the lockdown to pass.

Adding further complexity for 2degrees was that it had a swathe of pre-booked media slots and nothing to put into them during this period.

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"We started thinking about what else we could do and just started batting around a few ideas," the telco's chief brand and insights officer Ben Wheeler tells the Herald.

Working with the team at Auckland ad agency TBWA, the 2degrees marketing team came up with the insight that telcos can play a valuable role in ensuring that social-distancing Kiwis aren't isolated.

"We came up with a new campaign, which we turned around in a couple of days, called 'Together we cam.'"

The campaign features Kiwi comedian Pax Assadi on-screen, filming from his home and encouraging Kiwis around the country to video-chat with family and friends.

#TogetherWeCam

We’ve always been a nation that has been just 2degrees from each other. Over the coming weeks, we’re going to be using our airtime to bring friends, families, communities and small businesses together. So for anything you want to say, do, sing, make, play or mime, that might help NZ out, share it with us all. Because we’re all #inthistogether, and #togetherwecam help each other stay connected. If you need info or tips on how to get connected with face-to-face chatting, check out 2degrees.nz/together-we-cam #stay2degrees 💕

Posted by 2degrees on Wednesday, 25 March 2020

TBWA chief creative officer Shane Bradnick says the whole thing was pulled together online, with the teams communicating via video chat and Assadi even being directed remotely.

"It all happened really fast," says Bradnick.

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"And we already have a few more ideas about how to expand on this platform."

Bradnick says the team is already planning to work with rugby players and perhaps even a few businesses doing interesting things as the platform expands.

These ads will now run in radio, TV and digital slots purchased for the original idea, which 2degrees can now roll out at a more appropriate time.

Bradnick says it shows that even in tight and uncertain circumstances, you can still find creative ways to get a resonant message across.

Missed opportunity

The great irony about the pullback in advertising right now is that it comes at a time of record media consumption.

NZME chief executive Michael Boggs says the numbers hitting the NZ Herald site have been unprecedented.

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"In conjunction with NewstalkZB.co.nz we saw combined traffic of over 2.5million browsers on Monday and we've averaged over 2 million visitors every day this week to nzherald.co.nz – more than double a normal day," he says.

"We're also seeing increases in newspaper delivery subscriptions. Consumers who have their papers delivered or collect them from their local dairy, gas station or supermarket, now have more time to immerse themselves in the stories covered in our printed editions."

On top of this, there's been a 50 per cent spike in the time spent listening to radio channels via iHeartRadio.

NZME boss Michael Boggs says that Herald audiences have been unprecedented during this period. Photo / File
NZME boss Michael Boggs says that Herald audiences have been unprecedented during this period. Photo / File

"Unfortunately, while our teams are working incredibly hard to support these massive audiences, the advertising revenues that support our journalists and news teams have significantly reduced," he says.

With most of the nation sitting at home, eyes have also been locked onto television screens.

A TVNZ spokeswoman tells the Herald that 1 News has had some of its biggest audiences in years, with more than 900,000 viewers tuning into a bulletin on Monday this week.

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The magazine industry is also expecting to see a surge in engagement over a period when many Kiwis will be confined to their couches.

And yet, the advertisers normally so eager to get eyeballs simply aren't there at the moment.

Of course, a lockdown isn't a great time to be promoting special deals or "buy now" offers but it is a good time to focus on the more emotional brand side of the business that embeds a name and logo into Kiwi memories.

No one is under the illusion that advertising is going to solve the world's problems at this moment, but few will complain about having the mundanity of the lockdown interrupted by a quirky apocalypse van or a comedian with something interesting to say.

And besides, if you're one of the few cars left on the road, you're guaranteed to get noticed.