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  • Writer's pictureDr. Steven Taylor

Fear of COVID-19: Turning Coronas into Cash

With the high demand for protective masks, and the recent panic buying of supplies from supermarkets, it was inevitable that hustlers would try to profit from people’s fears. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer have been offered for sale in places like Craigslist at exorbitant prices.

This sort of thing has happened before. During the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, many manufacturers and retailers were quick to turn it to their advantage. Newspapers were filled with advertisements for quack remedies, including mint lozenges to be sucked whenever the person entered a crowded space (Arnold, 2018). Drug stores ran out of Vick’s VapoRub and other balms. Even bicycle dealers attempted to exploit the pandemic for economic gain. During the Spanish flu pandemic, a Toronto newspaper ran the following advertisement:

Get away from the stuffy, overcrowded street cars, with their danger of contagion. Ride a bicycle through the pure, fresh air. With an easy-running, long-lasting C.C.M. Bicycle, cycling will be a pleasure as well as a benefit. (Pettigrew, 1983, p. 113).

Not much has changed in the past hundred years. In 1918, bicycles were marketed as a way of avoiding contagion. In 2020, we haven’t seen the “bicycle cure”—yet—but we have seen facemask ads banned for making misleading claims about their efficacy.

One thing that is different in 2020, as compared to 1918, is the greater sophistication in marketing. Here’s something that I recently received in my in-box. I’ve removed the identifying information because it detracts from the point of the discussion:

Hi Professor Taylor,
My name is ____, and I’m a cultural brand strategist working at [Company X, representing a major international group of fast food companies]. Currently, my team is working to study the global fears/anxieties surrounding Coronavirus along with ideating potential solutions for how [Company X] can alleviate those anxieties, especially around its food. We would love to tap into your expertise on the psychology behind pandemics in approaching this challenge through a one-hour informational interview. If this is something you would be interested in, my team would love to schedule a one hour interview with you via Skype. This would be a paid interview, so please let us know your rate for an interview of this nature. Looking forward to the possibility of learning from you!

The bottom line was that [Company X] wanted me to help them to find ways of marketing their fast foods/snacks in a way that would be appealing to corona-anxious people. I turned them down. It didn’t seem right to help marketeers to rebrand Cheetos to be more appealing to COVID-19 anxious people. (BTW, the products didn’t include Cheetos; I just use that as an example.) The email suggests that some segments of industry are actively trying to think of ways of profiting from the current outbreak. This goes way beyond the marketing of facemasks (or bicycles). It involves using psychology to persuade corona-anxious people to purchase things that are frankly unrelated to protecting them from infection. In 1985 Gabriel García Márquez eloquently wrote about “love in the time of cholera.” In 2020, we’re looking at “Cheetos in the time of coronavirus”.

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