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COVID-19 ushers in entertaining, humorous branded content

A global health and economic concern is, ironically, a catalyst for humor and entertainment, reminding brands that deigning social media advents as irreverent or not offering messages in an entertaining way means losing a strategic tactic to stay relevant. 

Social media has evolved from a conduit to peers into a platform for entertainment, and the predilection for funny or entertaining content is particularly true for 16-24-year-old audiences. According to Global Web Index, digital consumers spend an average of over two hours per day on social networks, and 42 percent of global consumers and 54 percent of Generation Z have increased their social screen time since quarantining began.

Institutions and brands should think about their debut and presence on these platforms in this framework. "Innovate or die" is not a maxim reserved for business operations; it applies to communications, too. Social media offers a way to engage with quarantined audiences, but this requires adapting to the cultural context and zeitgeist while representing the brand. 

The Uffizi Gallery digitally reimagined its mission of art education by turning to TikTok, where 44 percent of users outside of China are 16-24 years old and 80 percent are Gen Z or Millennials. In one post, a masked Medusa portrait turns the coronavirus into stone while Cardi B’s “Coronavirus” audio is heard. In another, a 16th-century Florentine duchess is altered with the party or in-the-crowd filter — created ironically for the lack of parties — paired with Doja Cat’s “Boss B****” track. For Pride festivities, Greco-Roman male, nude sculptures were set to Todrick Hall’s “I Like Boys.” 

Similarly, Holland’s Rijks Museum repurposed masterpieces for content: staff and followers recreating Vermeer’s milkmaids and Rembrandt’s Dutchman to songs like Snoop Dogg’s and Wiz Khalifa’s “Young, Wild and Free,” or referencing a viral meme with a video zooming over the ornate attire of a Dutchwoman with the words “It’s called fashion. Look it up, sweetie” set to Tove Lo’s “Cool Girl.” 

Updating their traditional approach to communication, these bastions of culture make centuries-old art relevant to younger audiences who prefer bold brands and trendy content. 

Closer to home, our crosstown rival, UCLA, used the same strategy by packaging Coronavirus tips within entertainment content, like a video of a cappella groups singing handwashing steps. Employees have even created engaging content on their own. Alaska Airlines staff gained notoriety for their airport TikTok dances and, more facetiously, videos replicating their daily work — checking in travelers and operating flights — set to the song “I’m Essential.” 

Being highly shareable, such content transcends across platforms because it is entertaining and relevant making esoteric subjects or mundane tasks exciting to a wider audience.

The pandemic provides an impetus and an opening for reluctant, legacy brands to create content that reflects the culture of these digital spaces. Even when it subsides, these changes in audience interaction will persist: 76 percent of U.S. online video consumers plan to continue consuming content at unprecedented rates. 

This purposeful interaction with social media offers an opportunity to transition from interruptive to invitational marketing. The Rijks, for instance, not only entertained its audience, it also sold them masks from its store. COVID-19 accelerated changes in social media’s value proposition forever by making humor more relevant, branded content more entertaining, and permitting brands to be liberated and daring in their approach. 

Melvin Dilanchian is a second-year graduate student in the PR and advertising program and a teaching assistant at USC. Most recently, he interned for WPP.