“The New Normal” of Awful COVID-Themed Commercials

Buick and GMC are “here to help.” Are you not comforted? (Screenshot by the author)

Despite all the “end of the world” jokes on your Twitter feed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has in fact continued to keep doing its thing … just in different ways. Capitalism, sadly, continues to “function,” and the various corporations that rule our lives still have products and services to push. But they can’t very well do so without at least some acknowledgment that a good deal of their customers are currently trapped in quarantine. Hence we have a wave of (rushed, aesthetically identical) new advertisements, often making heavy use of stock footage, actors and testimonials appearing via video chat, repurposed social media material, or a mix of all three.

And this shit is weird. Like, even weirder than advertising already was. (And that’s before getting to any of the regular ads that had to be pulled due to their spectacularly poor timing.)

Some of them aren’t too bad. Here’s a businesslike, tasteful ad for Clorox — a product with obvious increased utility in a time demanding more strenuous domestic hygiene. It completely makes sense that the Clorox Company would make a COVID-tailored commercial.

Similarly, since national quarantines have drastically upped our collective internet usage, it’s natural that telecommunications companies would want to assure us that they’ll continue to maintain our connections. But it’s the way they do it that makes things skeevy.

Verizon and AT&T are reassuring us with uplifting tones. The latter makes sure to remind us that they’ve been doing this for over 100 years. Cluing people in to the unsavory details of that long history might not be the greatest idea for their public image, though. Setting that aside, both these ads try to make the fact that these companies will continue to provide service into something heroic, and not what, you know, they’re supposed to be doing in the first place, since we pay for their services. It takes on an especially dark pall when you consider that these two behemoths have essentially a monopoly over American telecommunications. We have no choice but to trust them.

Another field with a self-evident motivation to address this crisis is insurance. Such companies similarly take this as license to lather cringeworthy schmaltz into their updated advertising.

Absolutely nothing has made me feel more like I’m living in a sci-fi dystopia than a narrator saying “Businesses are closing, living rooms are now offices and schools, our world is suddenly different” in the same tone of voice she uses to say “Call your State Farm agent” while an Andra Day song plays in the background.

The onset of the pandemic and the resultant quarantining caused around half of all advertisers in one US survey to either suspend or delay various campaigns. The new order of the day for advertising is reassurance. The thinking goes that people are anxious, and so are looking to their familiar brands as sources of comfort. And some market research has suggested that this approach is working. Surveys found that viewers responded positively to a hokey St. Patrick’s Day-themed ad for Guinness Beer. Similarly, a Spanish IKEA commercial emphasizing the warmth of home received accolades. At Vox, says that such ads have a “strange comfort” to them.

My only response to people who see these ads and think “Aw, that’s nice” is … are you fucking serious?

Just sell your (ugly) cars! Why do you have to spin it as vital social outreach during a time of terrible uncertainty? Also, how dare you invoke the voice of Will Arnett in this evil! (Though on the plus side, that makes it extraordinarily easy to imagine this as part of a satirical in-universe BoJack Horseman ad.)

Hershey Kisses now have “Spread love from a distance” as their tagline. Why? That’s not helping anything! It’s chocolate! Nothing about this situation changes our use of chocolate, except that we’ll probably be eating more of it. The pandemic is already doing your job for you; there’s zero need to try to be heartwarming.

It’s worth noting this is all a natural outgrowth of a trend advertising was already on. With traditional commercial strategies growing increasingly obsolete due to a more media-savvy/jaded public and a decrease in overall viewership, companies have turned to using social media to affect a strange facsimile of “personality.” This takes many forms, from branded Twitter accounts acting as if they’re people to purposefully courting controversy to generate “discourse.” But in a time of mass sickness, death, and uncertainty, this practice goes from being merely off-putting to truly ghoulish.

Keurig was the one that broke me.

I just wanted to catch up on Riverdale. I didn’t need this in my life. Best/worst of all, it isn’t immediately apparent what this spot is for. Why are we seeing all this footage of people making the best of being stuck at home? Is it for a social media platform? A video chat app? Oh, no. It’s for a hideously wasteful coffeemaker.

Frito Lay actually managed to one-up Keurig for sheer misplaced drama with this commercial about their own corporate beneficence. (Hint: “It’s not about brands.”)

As this crisis continues, keep an eye out for corporations doing more and more boasting about how much they’re helping. With the usual artwashing/greenwashing/pinkwashing/etc. now less of an option, perhaps we’ll see “pandemicwashing” take on a more central role. Have fun seeing such ads, then Googling “[insert company here] work conditions / wages / safety standards.” Case in fucking point:

Case in fucking point, the sequel:

But for sheer evil hypocrisy, you can’t beat Amazon, which has rolled out a whole host of COVID-specialized ads.

And yes, we can definitely see that Amazon cares about its workers. In fact, if one were to seek sources suggesting otherwise, I definitely wouldn’t be able to put a different link in every single major word of this statement.

There’s a lot to keep in mind during quarantine. Remember to wash your hands, maintain a six-foot distance from others in public, and sterilize certain surfaces repeatedly. But in addition, I suggest that you also never, ever forget that brands are not your friends, and they do not care about you or what happens to you. “The New Normal” hasn’t changed that.