There’s something about the coronavirus that has alienated us from the visual cues of disaster. Locked inside under stay-at-home orders, a pandemic appears oddly routine. It looks like the inside of the refrigerator and the menu of the Roku. Bingeing some reality show from my couch, I begin to forget why I’m stuck here, watching it night after night. Until the commercial break arrives.
It’s jarring how easily the virus has been fused with branding and processed into the optimistic language of advertising. Every crisis begets its own corporate public service announcements — remember the Budweiser Clydesdale tribute to 9/11? — but rarely with such speed and ubiquity. Dozens of TV and online ads have angled to position brands within the pandemic experience, deploying inspirational pop music and gravelly voice-over artists to assure us that in “these unprecedented times” (Buick), that “in times as uncertain as these” (Chick fil A), “we’re all living a new normal” (State Farm), but “even now, some things never change” (Target) because “our spirit is what unites us” (Dodge).
The hallmarks of the coronavirus ad are so consistent they could be generated by bots. They begin with eerie drone footage of empty streets, a shot of a child staring plaintively out the window and then — cue the upbeat musical key change — a medical worker peeling off a mask, a guy jamming on a home piano, maybe a deeply pregnant woman rubbing her belly as if summoning a genie from its bottle. One Coca-Cola commercial, “To the Human Race,” created by a Malaysian advertising agency, elevates the subtext of these ads to text. “For all the scare mongering, there is also care mongering,” it says. “For every virus, there is a vaccine … in positivity.”
Often missing from these ads are the products themselves. Instead they feature pat metaphors that stuff the crisis into the various receptacles affiliated with the products. There are no Cokes in “To the Human Race,” just this note: “Thank you for filling the glass with kindness and hope.” Cadbury ends its Covid-19 commercial by saying: “There’s a glass & a half in everyone,” a reference to the purported milk content of its chocolate bars. Dunkin’ talks about “raising a cup” and Post Cereals discusses “filling the bowl.” Hefty’s message — “Stay strong: Hefty” — analogizes the human spirit to a bag of trash.
The coronavirus ad represents a pure feat of branding, of messaging freed from merchandise. Uber even ran an anti-Uber commercial that thanks its customers “for not riding with Uber.”
These ads aren’t selling things so much as they are selling the idea of producing things. They assure us that, despite the shuttering of factories and the breakdown of production chains, we are still manufacturing images, slicing them into inspirational montages and superimposing logos atop them.
Modern ads typically work to obscure labor. Commercials banish the drudgery of work in favor of the pure sensuality of consumption. In her 1983 documentary, “A Sign Is a Fine Investment,” Judith Williamson traced how the advertising industry, which once highlighted images of manufacturing and industry, shifted to a landscape where products “miraculously appear out of the sky.” The coronavirus ads mark a return to grit. They show cranes valiantly lifting cargo onto FedEx planes, slo-mo clips of Fareway workers striding through stockrooms, and packages racing down Amazon conveyor belts.
These ads smartly capitalize on the trend of anointing all essential workers as heroes. Over the strains of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” Doug McMillon, the CEO of Walmart, speaks as the faces of his company’s associates appear: “Thank you for keeping us safe, and for being our light.” An Amazon ad, “Delivering Rainbows,” spins delivering packages during the pandemic into a twee, heartwarming pursuit.
The well-meaning impulse to thank these workers has been seized by employers as a tactic for papering over the risks of working in warehouses and grocery stores, and easing our own tensions around benefiting from such work. The ads reveal the labor process and hide it at once. “I have a problem with all this hero talk,” Karleigh Frisbie Brogan, a Trader Joe’s employee, wrote in The Atlantic. “It’s a pernicious label perpetuated by those who wish to gain something — money, goods, a clean conscience — from my jeopardization.”
These ads have reimagined their ideal consumers, too. Doctors and nurses have swiftly been elevated into unwitting corporate spokesmodels, creating a fantasy where all consumption is reframed as a public service performed by heroes, for heroes. A FedEx ad shows packages that are delivered straight into the gloved hands of hospital workers. Dove’s “Courage Is Beautiful” ad dwells on the indentations left by personal protective equipment on health care workers’ faces. Dunkin’ and McDonald’s have styled themselves as canteens on the front lines of the virus response, arranging montages of masked nurses clutching their doughnuts and fries.
In the coronavirus ad world, heroes are broadly defined. In plenty of commercials, the central figure is not a supermarket checker or a health care worker but someone stuck at home, glued to the phone. We may not be intubating patients or packing meat, but we are boldly maintaining our consumption habits. One Dunkin’ commercial, “Heroes Come in All Forms,” features a vertical cellphone video of a man delivering a box of doughnut holes to his grandchildren using a drone. Heineken is saluting people who #socialiseresponsibly by drinking alone. Burger King’s ad makes fun of this idea, blaring patriotic music as people order fast food from their couches, but the message is the same: We’re helping.
Few brands have advertised more doggedly through the crisis than Facebook, which has staked a claim to everything from people sewing masks to clapping for essential workers to still having babies. In these ads, even our most stultifying quarantine distractions are reframed as testimonies to the human spirit. One ad serves up a cavalcade of grief — empty retail shelves, a man doubled over near an A.T.M., a woman crying in an N-95 mask — before offering relief in the form of posting to friends on Facebook. “We’re never lost if we can find each other,” the ad says. If you’re lucky enough to experience the coronavirus not as a medical emergency or occupational hazard but a source of existential despair, there is a cure, and the cure is Facebook.
Many of these ads are constructed from found images of social media, or at least they are made to appear that way. They locate hope in amateur video of a woman cutting her own bangs and a baby riding a Roomba. I think it’s safe to say that few people are having the time of their lives under lockdown, but these ads assign a profound emotional lift to posting stuff online. They implicate us in the branding exercise. They make us feel like, by turning the selfie camera on, we are producing something, too.