Americans React to Inflation References in Advertising

Inflation seems to be on everyone’s mind these days, no matter how one (or the government) defines it. Much like COVID-19 in 2020, brands are beginning to address the economy in their ad messaging and many more are considering it. But despite some early appreciation for “Covid compassion” in ads, consumers quickly grew tired of the overly dramatic and sweetly supportive trope as more and more brands latched on. Can the same be said (or be expected) for inflation/recession messaging?

We got curious about how viewers are responding to economic messaging so far and analyzed the Creative Assessment results for early empathizers across the Financial, Automotive, QSR/casual dining, Retail, and Telecom industries. Was a mention of sympathy enough to enamor a brand to viewers or is a specific deal or offer required? Did a certain tone connect better with viewers?

Across the eleven ads analyzed, two clear approaches emerged that reflect the age-old build the brand/build the business debate. Restaurants/QSR and some Retail brands favored discounts and sales while other brands tried to align on loftier values.

Offering Savings Common but not Altruistic

Looking at emotional responses, viewers most commonly recognized a sense of Value in ads addressing inflation in some form. But for those that did, more ads sparked a Dishonest or Incredulous (which can be positive) reaction than a Love It or Corporate Responsibility sense. None of the creatives landed as Convincing, Clear & Concise, or educational (Learning) but that is because these ads weren’t trying to explain the economy, only empathize with consumers.

The emotional heat map above plots the extent to which an ad placed ‘far from’ or very ‘high’ on a particular emotional concept (using NPL and vector analysis) as expressed in viewer verbatim comments about each spot.

The ads with the strongest Value proposition usually advertise a deal or offer of significance to viewers, in this case mentioned by 20% or more as the Single Best Thing about each of those ads. Sales with price discounting and free fuel/gas cards were common approaches.

If Not Value-Driven, Messaging Supports the Savvy

Ads not sparking a prominent Value proposition did not have inflation as a central theme (perhaps a quick mention), but instead conveyed an overall message of saving money through the consumer’s own ingenuity. Whether by shopping at a discount store, reducing credit card debt, changing telecom carriers, or renting an RV and avoiding pricey airfare and hotel fees, these ads aimed to support positive actions consumers can take. 

BrandAd TitleValue ScoreSBT Deal/OfferSBT MessageAce Score gap to normTop 2 Box Intent gap to norm
Kohl’sRising Inflation :155.627%14%+45+7
Denny’sFueling Up :155.324%11%-14+9
Del TacoRight Time :304.323%13%+48+5
Ashley FurnitureGet $100 Fuel Card :153.626%13%+39+5
BojanglesFree $10 Gas Card :152.320%10%+14+1
WalmartYou Get It :302.24%20%+38+1
ToyotaDear Gas Prices (T2) :301.26%15%+38+8
Mint MobileRecord Deflation :30014%16%+128+7
AmazonBTS: Spend Less on Your Kids :3007%19%+13+3
TallyGroup Meditation :1506%28%+14+4
OutdoorsyInflation :3004%20%+162+20

The chart above details the Value score earned by the ad as determined by viewer comments on the ad, as well as the proportion of viewers recognizing the deal/offer or message as the Single Best Thing about the ad. Ad resonance is reflected in the overall Ace score and purchase intent, both expressed as a gap to the brand’s category norm.

Both approaches sparked above-average purchase consideration (more likely or much more likely to consider a visit/purchase) in their respective categories, with most creatives outperforming norms by double to triple digits – quite a positive impression. Few, however, felt truly Empowering* to viewers as shown in the Cultural Perception* matrix below.

The chart above places ads on the Cultural Perception continuum by depicting the extent to which each sparked Empowering and/or Exploitative* feelings among consumers, as measured through NLP processing of viewer verbatim comments.

Laughing It Off: Brands Keep Creative Upbeat

Despite rising stress and concerns among consumers, many brands appear to have moved away from the somber empathy of COVID days, choosing humor (such as Del Taco’s “Right Time”) and/or Colorful, Cinematic, and Energetic creatives for a decidedly upbeat tone. In fact, none of the inflation ads reviewed dramatically tugged at heartstrings, but neither did many brands risk going the Ingenious out-of-the-box Left Field (or even Quirky) route. Perhaps these marketers read the market as Marketing Dive recently did, when almost half (45%) of 12,000 global consumers reported (June, 2022) not feeling truly happy in at least two years and simply seeking a boost from brands.

Empathetic Solutions Rang True

Messages from Mint Mobile and Outdoorsy made the strongest impression on consumers, who rated these ads well over 100 points above their category norms. These best performers conveyed an understanding of and respect for the viewers’ pain points and desires, and aligned their brand with these shared values. In a report recently published by MediaPost, analysts called out (once again) a strong case for favoring brand-building advertising in tough economic times versus “performance” marketing/media focused on short-term blips.

In “Record Deflation,” Mint Mobile’s Ryan Reynolds promises consumers that Mint is doing the exact opposite of other brands by deflating prices. Viewers saw the brand as unique in the category, and on their side as seen in comments on the ad.

“It was funny and really caught my attention due to the fact that they are cutting their price in half instead of doubling it like most corporations as of now”

Male 36-49

“The brand promises to charge and treat its customers differently in a positive direction”

Male 16-20

“They are one with the people and want to do what is best for the consumer”

Female 36-49

“Mintmobile seems to have the upper advantage on how the phone company are handling inflation! Inflation is horrible right now”

Male 21-35

Here, Outdoorsy offers no deals, but an opportunity for the brand to help consumers adjust plans and behaviors. The comments below reflect appreciation for the positive alternatives available.

“I like how it makes a positive message from inflation because I know inflation is affecting many people right now. It sucks but that’s what’s going on in the world right now.”

Female 21-35

“You bring up a valid point that you can have fun without the worries of paying extreme prices due to inflation.”

Male 50+

“I really feel like this ad is very relevant. Inflation is affecting us all.”

Male 21-35

“This is truly a great ad, and doesn’t feel like it’s taking advantage of the moment.”

Female 36-49

Creative Quality Always Matters

The rising pressure of inflation alone was not enough to drive more recent ads to resonate better with consumers, indicating the (always present) influence of creative quality for connections and delivery of information. There is always risk in a brand aligning with a particular event or economic circumstances as bandwagoning or being disingenuous. But there are good examples of inflation messaging that are relevant and engaging with viewers that strengthen brand perception and purchase consideration. 

Mint Mobile and Outdoorsy were markedly successful at breaking through (grabbing Attention* in a Likeable* way) and relating to the viewer by matching unique messaging to their brand’s strengths (measured by the Relevance Score*). Notably, both ads chose inflation as the primary topic of the creative.

Many brands find a need to achieve both business and brand building/support through changing and challenging economic conditions. These results point to current success with both approaches as long as deals and messaging are communicated via quality creative with bright and cheery tones (at least given consumer sentiment). Still, success will be predicated on this empathy ringing uniquely true to the brand while avoiding the sameness (and therefore disingenuousness) of COVID bandwagoning.


*Glossary 

Cultural Perception: measuring positive and negative impact of advertising, the Cultural Perception scoring system ultimately helps brands assess the risks and rewards of achieving emotional connections as they relate to cultural and social subjects. 

Empower: measures the positive impact of an ad’s message, indicating when viewers find it encouraging, inspiring, or motivating.

Exploit: measures negative impact, indicating when an ad offends viewers in some manner, whether that’s via stereotyping, pandering, objectification, glorification, portraying racism or sexism, or band-wagoning.

Attention Score: measures an ad’s ability to grab attention, based on results from the survey prompt “It got my attention”

Likeability Score: measures an ad’s ability to appeal to viewers, based on results from the survey prompt “I like this ad”

Relevance Score: measures an ad’s ability to relate with viewers, based on results from the survey prompt “i can relate to its message”