How Not to Be Tone-Deaf In Your Marketing/Communications Right Now

How Not To Be Tone-Deaf in Your Communications & Marketing Right Now
21 Apr 2020

Is your communication and marketing coming across as tone-deaf right now?

In this chat we talk about some of the factors that creates tone-deaf communications and a list of tips to help you check if your tone is right for your market right now.

Show notes for those that prefer to read:

Today we’re talking about how not to be tone-deaf when you’re communicating with other people or when marketing.

Think back just a couple of weeks ago: All our inboxes were bombarded with thousands and thousands of emails from every business we’ve possibly interacted with in the past decade (and probably a whole lot more that we haven’t) about how they’re wiping down their benches and how they’re telling their staff to wash their hands.

It was a spectacular communications failure because most of these people we hadn’t met. We hadn’t been to their stores, and we didn’t interact with them in any particularly meaningful way and yet they wanted us to know that they wiped down surfaces and washed hands. Gee thanks for sharing that information!

We then got all the automated emails arriving – the ones that had been pre-set and no one had checked.

I don’t know about you, but I got ones about, “Hey, there’s never been a better time to travel. Why don’t you book your next holiday for Easter?” Yeah – timing’s not so great!

I also received emails about, “Enjoy your next birthday dinner at our buffet restaurant!”? Well, thanks for reminding me that I can’t go to restaurants.

These were tone-deaf communications.

What is tone-deaf marketing?

Out of touch

It’s marketing or communicating in a way that is out of touch with what people are thinking and experiencing.

A great example of this was the well-meaning actors who decided to sing “Imagine”. They all filmed themselves warmly singing just a tiny bit of the song and put it all together into a montage.  

Fantastic. Except that, right then at that particular moment it was as if there had been a multi-car pile-up on a freeway, and there were people still trapped in cars, and they were bleeding, and there were fires and broken bones.

The ambulances hadn’t yet arrived – and yet these group of predominantly wealthy white people were wandering through the crash site singing “Imagine”. They were out of touch with where people were at at the time.

That’s why it’s essential to figure out where your audience is at: What are they thinking and feeling? Match their emotions and their experience


We’ve seen a lot of communications and marketing coming through that is self-serving. A typical example, “Buy my X product, and I’ll donate $5 in masks to my local doctor’s clinic.” That self-serving marketing.

We can see that you’re just trying to get money for yourself but also chucking in a few guilty dollars towards somebody else. It’s a self-serving marketing exercise. Be conscious of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

No relevant information

We’ve talked about that one. This is where you send information that’s not relevant to people at that particular time and at that point in their experience at that particular moment.

Manipulative marketing

Another form of tone-deaf marketing is what I call manipulative marketing. Those of you who know me or have watched a few of these chats know I have a strong view against manipulative or unethical marketing.

To me, marketing doesn’t have to manipulate you or hypnotise people into buying. You don’t have to do that! You can be upfront and honest.

Some of the manipulative tactics that we’re seeing are things like false scarcity, where people say, “There’s only one left” – even when it is obvious that there is stock available.

We also are seeing a lot of the fear of missing out being used in marketing.

For example – the use of a countdown timer where you’ve only got 20 minutes before the offer will disappear forever.

The fear of missing out marketing tactics are manipulative and are not good in this market and not good at any time.

We see popups on eCommerce stores that show “Mary from Sydney just bought this particular bag of dog food”.  This is another example of fear of missing out, and it’s manipulative and tone-deaf at this particular moment.

Ungrounded promises are another form of manipulative marketing. “Buy my very expensive bicarb soda that’s got a fancy label on it, and you won’t get coronavirus” or “Stand next to my Van da Graff generator that I am selling under a different badge for $10,000, and you won’t get coronavirus. “

These sorts of claims are ungrounded, unethical and not based in science. Don’t do it at this particular time and don’t do it at any time unless you want to fall foul of the ACCC and TGA.

Other things that we see for tone-deaf marketing are free offers that have hooks.

For example, “Attend my free webinar” and when people to they then find it is really just a pitch fest.

Or sign up for and get this free download of actually useful information, but then find you get hounded and hounded and hounded for a sale by their telemarketing team. Tone-deaf, absolutely tone-deaf.

Another form of marketing that’s tone-deaf at the moment is asking people to go into debt, access their superannuation or use their job seeker cheques to buy a particular product.

If you see any of those things, they’re tone-deaf. It’s manipulative marketing so run away screaming!


Other things that are tone-deaf at the moment: Platitudes. “We’re all in this together”. “It’ll all work out for the best”.

Well, no. We’re not all in it together in the same way.

For me as a privileged white person, I have a roof over my head, I have food, and a loving and great relationship with my kids. Other people aren’t so lucky.

We’re not all in this in exactly the same way. Some people are struggling.

By saying we’re all in this together, it’s a platitude and not reflective of other people’s experience.

“It’s all going to work out for the best”.

Well, maybe, but maybe it won’t for some people. It’s just a platitude.

As humans, we tend to say platitudes when we don’t know what else to say.

Sometimes losing the platitude is a better way to go. Have an awkward conversation about, “I don’t know what to say. This conversation is feeling awkward. I’d love to think that it’s all going to work out for the best. I believe in you. I believe that you’ve tackled hard things in the past and I believe you’ll be able to do it from the future.”

That awkwardness is better than “We’re all in this together” or “It’s all going to work out for the best.”


Also be careful of personal projection where you say, “I know how you’re feeling”.

I saw an email where someone said, “I know how you’re feeling. You must be feeling stressed and upset.”

No, that’s a projection. That may be you feeling that way, and they may or may not be feeling upset. They might be doing handsprings because this is the best business time in their life. Don’t project.

You can adjust your language if you are trying to empathise with their feelings.

You may say, “You may be feeling this. Here’s a range of experiences that people might be feeling. You might be feeling some or none of these. Whatever you are feeling is OK.” Adjust your language but don’t project.

It’s OK to market

The thing to remember is it’s OK to market right now. In fact, it’s actually essential for you if your business is to continue.

Continue to market right now – do not go dark. The worst thing you can do is to close everything down and go dark because then people will think and feel that your business is closed and it’s never going to come back. So right now, continue to market.

Market with your brand voice. By that, I mean, live your brand in how you communicate.

For me, my brand is known for helping people to deal with the overwhelm when they’re trying to market or to go online. But we do it with a bit of nerdy fun, hence the hats.

We’re also known for sharing a lot of useful information. So, we’re continuing that as our brand communications strategy.

If that’s not your strategy, if your strategy is much more corporate and functional, then continue that. Don’t suddenly try to become a stand-up comic.

Stay with what you know. Stay with your brand voice. Live your brand.

Tips on how not to be tone-deaf in your communications during the pandemic

Here are a whole stack of communications tips that may help

1. Email inbox test

Many years ago, when I was in government, we had what was known as the Courier Mail test. (The Courier Mail is our local city newspaper).

We would always consider, “What would it look like if this got out and was the headline on the Courier Mail? Would people think it was OK or not?”

It was like the pub test – if people talked about it in the pub, would it sound, OK?

Right now, I call it the email inbox test. I want you to imagine that whatever you’re communicating is dropping into their inbox.

On one side of your email is an email from their cousin Mary who says, “Hey, guess what? All of our family have lost their jobs. It’s really tight right now. We can’t get support from government for another month. Can you lend us some money? “

On the other side is, “Here’s how many people have died of Coronavirus today”.

How does your email sit in that middle? Does it look OK or does it look like it’s a bit on the nose?

2. Check automated messages

Pause and review everything automated. Have a look at every single auto-responder and pause it until you have reviewed it using the email inbox test. Decide is it still valid? Does it need to be paused temporarily or permanently?

3. Ask: Does this help?

Before you communicate anything, any email, any social media posts, anything, ask, “Will this genuinely help right now?”

If it’s just there to add noise or it’s just there to push content out, then you’re not adding value.

People are distracted, and people genuinely have limited mental bandwidth right now. Don’t add to the noise. Add value,

4. Be agile and adjust

Be prepared to test and adjust your communications and marketing processes to see what’s working. If you’re not getting reach, if people aren’t responding to your stuff or if you are getting feedback that things aren’t working, then you need to adjust your process.

It might mean that you need to do less or more. You might need to do it in a different format. Look at what’s going on and adjust your process. Be nimble right now.

5. Avoid I / Me / My

Avoid the “I, me, mys” in your marketing. One of the things that always drives me bananas when I look at people’s websites is when they start with “me, me, me, me, me.”

A typical self-focused home page has content that says, “We started 20 years ago and here are our values and here’s me, me, me, me”. You haven’t left anybody any space.

This is even more so during a pandemic because people are struggling with looking beyond their world and family. They’re rounding up the horses around their camp and trying to keep it safe.

Drop your “I, me, mys” and flip to how you can add value and help another person.

6. Be empathetic

Be aware of the different experiences your clients are going through.

We talked a little bit about it before, but the best description I can have is it’s like a friend who’s been diagnosed with cancer, and you don’t know what to say, so you don’t say anything, and you just avoid it. And it just goes on and on – for years.

One of my colleagues told me of a situation where she went to her workplace, and one of her work colleagues was so awkwarded out by not knowing what to say that they physically ran in the other direction when they saw her.

Being in a pandemic’s like that. Awkward conversations will be awkward. But awkward communications are better than no communications.

It’s OK to be awkward, and it’s OK to acknowledge that this is awkward and I’m struggling with what to say. It’s better than nothing.

So have empathy but acknowledge the awkwardness in the conversation.

7. Be aware of where people are at

Keep an eye on what’s going on in social media. Listen to the chatter online and listen to your colleagues. Listen to your clients and see what they’re talking about to gauge what is their emotional state.

In previous chats, we’ve talked about some of the different phases people might be going through. Look at the social media chatter. Talk to your clients and get a sense of where they’re at in these phases and match your communications to their phase.

8. Don’t push high-end products

Avoid high-end product promotions because the budget is tight for a lot of people. This is not the time to be pushing your Louis Vuitton bags.  If you’ve got a high-end product, you will need to find different ways to push that product or market that.

9. Don’t brag

If you’re doing OK or if your business is having the best time ever, do not brag about it. Especially do not go on social media or TV and brag about it, (and I am looking at you, Harvey Norman).

Do not brag about your wealth and do not brag about how spectacularly well you’re doing. That is tone-deaf, and it is not in touch with what other people are experiencing.

Also avoid the humblebrag. “Hey, we had the best launch ever. Here I am drinking my champagne about how fantastic this launch was.”

This is the time to celebrate in private.

10. Watch humour and flippancy

Watch your humour and flippant or off-the-cuff remarks. During crisis communications, flippant statements can override the message.

An example is that we had our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, explain that jigsaws were an essential item. It was a flippant comment, and he was just trying to fill in the airspace. The jigsaw comment was a flippant throwaway, but it overshadowed the rest of his press conference.

Keep to your message and just know that sometimes the flippant comment can override all the rest of your communications and it comes across as tone-deaf.

This is also the time to really be careful of the memes that you share. Make sure that your humour is broad and encompassing, and it is not discriminatory or pointing towards racial stereotypes.

11. Name the dynamic

Finally, if you’re going to sell, then name the communication dynamic and give context for why you’re selling at that time.

An example with my own business is, “This is a really strange time, and it feels awkward to have to market my business at this point. However, I need to continue to pay my mortgage and I want to continue to keep my business going.

One of the things that I am doing, is giving away as much free information as I can so that everybody of all budgets can access useful stuff to help them during this time.

However, if you do have budget and you are looking to restart after the pandemic closes, this is a great time to get your website built, so get in touch as I am more than happy to talk with you about options.

If you don’t have a budget, but you still like what we’re doing, feel free to share our chats or our blog posts so the messages can go to other people who may be able to use them.”

That was me communicating where we’re at.

To deconstruct it: I acknowledged that it’s strange right now. I acknowledged it’s awkward having this conversation, and I talked a little bit about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and how you can help us to stay in business.

I hope this helps with your communications!

About the Author

Ingrid Moyle

Ingrid Moyle (BA - Psych/Industrial Relations) is the Chief Web Wizard at Heart Harmony Communications. A self-confessed multipotentialite, Ingrid shamelessly blends her passions of human resources, psychology, web design and copywriting. When not hardwired to her computer, she quests for the perfect coffee while chasing virtual reality creatures across the backstreets of Brisbane.
Bowler hat with lightbulb.

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