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

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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?

Like, GMC, 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: Domino’s.

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. 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.

Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is Associate Editor for Documentary at Hyperallergic. He lives and works in New York.

19 replies on “‘The New Normal’ of Awful COVID-Themed Commercials”

      1. Naive or just plain numb. My concern is that tacit acceptance of (corporate) hypocrisy is a slippery slope to decadence and despair. The trust barometers have begun to go negative: ppl expect to get screwed by the system. Deaths of despair are soaring. And marketing is the most bitter betrayer because it’s got us by the guts of our deepest longings. Time to remind the institutions they are here to support the ppl’s wellbeing first. Not to hoard resources and wellbeing.

        1. Not only has the government been MIA during this crisis, but it’s been replaced by schlocky companies trying to sell me masks and sanitizer. (As well as every other niche item you can imagine there might be a market for, during the pandemic.)

  1. Corporate advertising is the biggest example of FOMO that there ever was. Mustn’t look like they aren’t compassionate (lol), yet if they also don’t try and sell their product, doesn’t mean their competitors won’t stop. Oh noes!
    On the other hand, at least some people are keeping their jobs in advertising.

    Personally, I don’t watch anything that has ads or doesn’t allow me to skip them after a few seconds, so I haven’t seen any of the ads in the article, nor am I about to click on them. My apologies if this was a covert attempt by Hyperallergic to earn some “click” revenue. I have heard from diffierent sources that ad revenue from placement on websites is dropping.

  2. These are all terrifying. Just have to point out that in the Frito-Lay commercial at 0:16, you literally see their unprotected “workers” breathing right into each others faces. Thanks for the “jobs” Frito-Lay. Capitalism, your cracks are showing.

      1. Cuz we don’t need them and some of them know why…. Look at the politicians that forces us to wear them and influences you think they are wearing them in their private little places they go to together I bet you they’re not. Which is breathing out on carbon dioxide slowly anyway our good floor will help fight whatever anything maybe you don’t see him boosting immune system that’s the real Key…just saying… psyop…. There probably old commercials anyway

  3. Especially, the background music heard in the Buick and GMC car commercial (we’re here to help) that shows a car going over the bridge, the Junior Achivement commercial that shows two school students holding hands together in school, and the IBM-Look for Hope & covid-19 TV commercial that could have a sound that could make tears to come out of my eyes (that make me feel depressed), esp. if you are far away from the TV.

  4. Yes of course to all of this, the emptiness of the messaging and the monotonous conformity of the presentation (I recently saw back to back commercials that featured the exact same stock piano music in the backgrounds, causing a moment of sincere confusion). BUT, what _would have_ been better (or at least not anger inducing)? Would you have preferred the ads to have a different message; preferred the ads to be exactly the same as before; or simply prefer to never have advertising (which is unlikely)?

  5. When I was forced to leave art school due to dire financial/family circumstances I found a happy new home in advertising. Ideas were the principle currency and wholesome entertainment was the name of the game. Not this insulting shit that talks down to people and treats them like mindless morons. In my time I have been a CD in international agencies in London, Paris, Milan and LA working on multinational brands so know quality work means quality people who have the balls to face a challenge. Where have they all gone? I have shot a lot of commercials so really know film. Grips have a saying they slyly whisper on productions they find lame: “Hey man, this is polishing the turd!” Guess there has been a whole lot of polishing going on in the past few months…

  6. If people are so lonely/naive that they feel comforted by State Farm being there, so be it.
    Ironically enough I did need to call a State Farm agent recently and she was sweet as butter.
    I learned as a child that advertising was just that ,advertising.
    Maybe there are actually some nice human beings working in the advertising department. Whatever, We do know the bottom line for everyone is a profit.

    We also know the Advertising department realizes For the most part people enjoy seeing puppies and babies and kindness. And the camaraderie of it all!!!
    Anyone can call it out for bullshit if they like.

    So would you prefer the Car companies just to say “Don’t worry about the future !!!you’re just going to die anyway !!!why do you need a car?”

    I’m not going to fall for gimmicks or new cars because of subliminal messages or overt messages.

    And for those who do , To Coin an old phrase, I have a bridge to sell to you in Brooklyn.!!!

    But otherwise we can just sit back and enjoy them for the silly pretense escape they are; singing Kumbaya— pretending we are all ”one big in-love world together”.

    1. “Silly pretense escape”? Escape? What am I escaping from by watching the new commercials? I am totally aware of the Covid-19 pandemic and the steps to take to keep myself and others safe, okay? Why must I be pummeled incessantly by advertisers who pretend they care about us and constantly remind me of a reality I am trying to escape from for a little while by watching TV? What this is for them is, it’s a golden opportunity for great PR, when in reality I am fully aware that they don’t give a damn about the public. They STILL care only for one thing: Profits. And the insulting message they send is, “You have a short attention span, and you need us to be the conscience of the public”. How pompous!

      Since I am a senior citizen with a disability that allows me to take only short walks (very short) in my neighborhood, who lives alone (not by choice), I don’t have any other family members who I can enjoy and give me any kind of diversion from this new reality. I must make my own diversions, one being watching TV. But there’s NO diversion in that. Not anymore. The commercials are seeing to that.

      I think I can now truly say that I know what it feels like to be browbeaten.

  7. Except for your unfortunate sixth-grade restroom potty language, this is brilliant. Thank you.

  8. https://www.adamsmith.org/intellectuals-dont-like-capitalism

    Businesses push to sell products, people buy/consume them, the business makes money and hires employees who get paid, can pay their bills, fees their families, and put their money back into the cycle. I’m confused as to why you hate this wealth creating system so much. You, and anyone else, are not entitled to someone else’s money. Don’t be jealous. Capitalism affords you the opportunity to compete or to work for someone who has already been successful in that competition. Read the article to find out why intellectuals hate capitalism and shill other non-spontaneously occurring systems that are actually unfair.

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