by Alexandra Craciun,
University of Bucharest,

16.7M people infected, 661K deaths, more than 3.9 billion people, half of the world’s population, on lockdown − were just some of the facts reshaping a ‘world of uncertainty in the times of pandemics. Empty business centers, deserted streets and desolate malls substituted by multifunctional homes turned into offices, universities, schools or kindergartens − are all putting forth a new, mediated relation with the ‘other’ able to access our private spaces via monitors.

COVID-19 virus had reshaped time and space. The new all-accessible, limitless, ubiquitous corporation changed us into 24/24 reachable employees. At the same time, exteriors and interiors are now separated by ‘disinfecting rituals’, quarantine and isolation while social and physical distance has dramatically limited our offline interactions.

Our faces, partially hidden under protection masks are becoming part of a redesigned representation of our identity. Emergent anxieties related to the ‘unknown’, the ‘unseen’, and the ‘uncontrollable’ are all outcomes of ‘contagion’ as the dominant feature of our ‘reinstalled’ world.

But, probably, the most surprising outcome of the pandemics is the occurrence of the fear related to the ‘other’ − according to a survey we have conducted during the lockdown (from March to May 2020) at the University of Bucharest. Homophobia, xenophobia, are considered by South-East European millennials among the major changes generated by our current environment, together with anxieties related to the emergence of an economic crisis and job loss.

The same research has also highlighted important evolutions related to the exteriorization of the locus of control, the levels of happiness, the choices of media, and new acquisition behaviors developed during the state of emergency − that I will try to sum up,  briefly.

Millennials are a generation with an exterior locus of control. Most of them used to believe that what happened in their life was the result of their own deeds. The present research puts forth the fact that the COVID 19 pandemic outburst was followed by an exteriorization of the locus of control with an important impact on the way millennials are perceiving their place in the world. At the end of the lockdown, 26% of the young adults surveyed believe that what happens is related to fate or transcendence, in comparison with the 95% surveyed millennials who consider that everything depends of their own deeds at the beginning of the pandemics outburst in Romania. The outcome of this research may be correlated with the level of happiness that displayed also unexpected evolution. Interestingly, the announcement of the state of emergency related to extremely high levels of happiness. New plans for a different life far from the office/universities, the rediscovery of the private space, a new perspective on working from home were probably the main reasons why 30% of the surveyed millennials declared, at the beginning of the lockdown, that they are “very happy”. The percentage/rate of very happy people decreased under 5%, during the next weeks. When the government announced the end of the restrictions, the second highest level of happiness was recorded, but immediately after during the first week after the lockdown, the level of happiness was dropping down again. This interesting evolution proves that millennials are processing the information emotionally i.e. related rather to expectations, than to real life situations and facts.

In terms of media choices, during the first two weeks of the lockdown, the research showed an interesting switch toward TV as the main provider of the news. Over 50% millennials mentioned TV as their main source of information related to COVID 19.  While the outburst of the pandemics was associated with a return to rather traditional media, the end of the lockdown was bringing back millennials’ online habits. In the final part of the lockdown, only 35% of the surveyed young adults mentioned TV still as the main source of the news, while alternative digital channels were regaining attentions. Based on these insights, our conclusion was that during crisis situations, people tend to select, in Marshall McLuhan’s terms, ‘hot’ communication channels, in spite of their normal preference for ‘cool’ media, less saturated with information, and able to allow them to contribute in co-creating and distributing the message.

Last but not the least, the COVID 19 pandemics was bringing forth new acquisition habits with an evident preference for local brands, corelated with a dramatic loss of interest for products originating from China or Italy. Although the timeframe of the research coincided with the most dramatic outburst of the pandemics in Italy, the rejection of Chinese products was higher than that of the Italian products. This might be an interesting insight in relation to items pointing to the emergence of xenophobic feelings. The conclusion is that the bigger the distance and the perceived “otherness” are, the higher the rejection rate is.

While people were more and more separated by physical and social distance and, even more dramatically, by anxieties and homophobia, corporations seemed to become more and more engaged in reconnecting consumers in online and offline communities.

The audience ‘winners’ of the COVID 19 pandemics became ‘viral’ by focusing their communication strategies on “consumer shared values”.  Coca Cola, Mc Donald’s, Audi, Mercedes Benz or VW have reshaped their logos in order to promote social distance. Uber’s “Thank you for not riding” told the customers not to use the brand in order to stay safe.  “Your country needs you. To stay on your couch” is part of a new, reversed rhetoric where corporations are no longer talking about brands or products, but about how customers can face the ‘new normal’.

Safety rules, working from home, supporting hospitals and doctors, contributing to the social good by donating, providing new creative ideas for life during lockdown − are the highlights of the nowadays strategic communication.

In other words: “A new Vegas for a new reality” – to quote another pandemic ad campaign. Thus, it is clear that, our world of ‘contagion’, which brings forth alternative needs for a global audience, might have a long-term impact on the way we used to define the tools and the scope of ‘public relations’, ‘advertising’ and ‘strategic communication’.

Emergent consumer needs, new anxieties, alternative realities provided by our ‘new normal’ might reconfigure the relation between customers and corporations based on “shared values”, as well as emergent, alternative ways of interaction within virtual communities driven by social causes.  And this future seems to have already started should we not, eventually, decide to uninstall 2020, and reinstall it later, just because the first version came with a …virus.