The television advertisers of America, like the rest of us, have struggled to adjust to the coronavirus pandemic. We are all at home watching TV, yet so many of us don’t have the money, the sense, or the will to go out and participate in the consumer economy like we used to. (I, for one, have hardly bought anything other than groceries, booze, and commemorative T-shirts.) This leaves companies in the odd position of wanting to assure us that we’re all united during these extraordinary times, while simultaneously insisting that the times remain ordinary enough for us to consider buying a new car. It has been a tough sell, and not just because people are scared and retail remains in a partial freeze. Even if people were spending as much as before, the pandemic has created a whole host of new consumption patterns that commercials are ill-equipped to address.
Most of the time, TV ads tend to depict consuming a product as an experience that will improve your life in some awesomely outrageous way. The advertiser wants you to associate their product with some activity that is more fun than just sitting at home watching television, such as driving a fast car around tight mountain roads or chasing after a cartoon character who has just stolen your cereal. You don’t see too many brands cutting spots that feature sad loners mournfully drinking light beer in their bleak studio apartments, and yet here we all are, a nation of involuntary hermits. Under these circumstances, how in the world do you get people in the mood to go out and buy?
I don’t really know—and neither do most television advertisers. Broadly speaking, the ads that have aired since the country hunkered down in March are a poor crop, whether they were awkwardly reedited for this moment or created explicitly with our new world in mind. Production values have never been lower, the case for discretionary consumer spending has never been weaker, and very few advertisers have a handle on what they should be saying right now. Thus, the ads have evolved over the course of the pandemic. At first they were confused and muddled, unsure how to process or reflect the burgeoning outbreak; then they were mournful and empathetic, desperate to not appear insensitive as lockdowns spread and the death toll rose; then they were resolute, eager to celebrate the strong stuff of which this country is ostensibly made and to tout their own fortitude in remaining in business; now they are antsy for all of this to end and for Americans to get back to picking up fast-food pizza five nights a week. If advertising represents an aspirational version of the world in which we live, then it’s clear from this growing corpus that we’ll be living in a nightmare for a while.
I am currently holed up in a house filled with people who very much enjoy watching broadcast television each night. This means two things: First, I have developed a strong emotional connection with the meteorologists on the 7 p.m. news. Second, I am now intimately familiar with the COVID-19 advertising oeuvre—so much so that I have taxonomized them into these 13 categories. These do not reflect all of the COVID-themed commercials out there—you’re always going to have outliers—but most ads these days fall into one or more of these rubrics. Together, they’ll give you a televisual sense of what it means to market and consume these days—and underscore that not even the grammar of TV advertising is equipped for the anxieties of these unprecedented times.
The “We’re Here for You” Ad
Also known as the “we care” commercial, this is the predominant variety of COVID-themed ad these days. In it, the advertiser pretends to discard all tawdry product-hawking concerns in order to assure you, the distraught viewer, that it cares deeply for you and your troubles and that it is here for you in this time of crisis; that despite what you may have presumed, its primary goal is not to sell things and make money, but to serve the citizens of this great nation. These spots are unconvincing at best and sociopathic at worst, insofar as they feign authentic human emotions in order to manipulate you into buying insurance or cereal.
Take this Ford spot from earlier this month. “We’re here for a reason … and it’s bigger than selling cars,” narrator Bryan Cranston(!) proclaims, risibly, at the beginning of the ad. He goes on to claim that the automaker’s real purpose is to be there for doctors, first responders, restaurant employees, and other essential workers … by selling cars to them? “If you’re out there fighting through it, we know 260,000 people who have your back,” Cranston concludes with a flourish, and he is either talking about Ford’s own workforce or the population of Laredo, Texas. It’s an empty promise either way—especially now that two recently reopened Ford plants have closed temporarily after some employees there were diagnosed with COVID-19.
The “We’re Here for You … With Special Deals!” Ad
A variant of the above in which brands manifest their empathy by offering consumers a variety of hot discounts. I actually find these ads less obnoxious than their brethren if only because they’re more open about their endgame of extracting your money. They’re even vaguely reassuring in their way, since they most resemble the sorts of ads you’d see on TV in normal times. I like this Sprint commercial, which spends a mere four seconds genuflecting to our troubled times before breathlessly detailing all of the exciting deals that await you if you switch wireless carriers this very minute.
The “You Can Count on Us” Ad
Another cousin of “we’re here for you.” These self-valorizing commercials declare that the brand in question has been, is, and always will be ready to serve you. The precise pitch here is one of dependability in a tumultuous world. Toyota is great at this subgenre. “When you need a vehicle you can count on, trust Toyota to be here for you,” the carmaker’s spokesperson, “Jan,” says at the top of this recent spot. The ad notes that many Toyota service centers have been open throughout the pandemic, and announces that there are some great lease deals available at this very moment. “It’s our promise to you,” Jan says. “Today and tomorrow, Toyota.” Thanks, “Jan”!
The “God Bless Our Heroes” Ad
These manipulative spots ostentatiously applaud the essential workers and medical personnel who have worked steadily through this crisis. The problem isn’t that these people don’t deserve a hearty round of applause; it’s that the subtle aim of these ads is for viewers to come away thinking the advertisers are a little bit heroic too. A good example is this McDonald’s spot from April, which purports to honor first responders while also serving to honor the fast-food chain for offering these everyday heroes one free meal per day for a limited time only. (“No substitutions,” the fine print stipulates.) I’ll grant that running a national commercial is probably the most effective way to inform people of this initiative—but the initiative, like the ad, is yet another way to make viewers feel so warm and fuzzy that they buy some McNuggets to support the troops.
The “You Know, We’re Pretty Heroic Ourselves” Ad
These pompous commercials dispense with subtlety entirely, loudly and proudly praising the advertiser in question for keeping the lights on so that you, the terrified housebound American, will not have to spend your lockdown deprived of wireless internet and mayonnaise. This spot from Kraft Heinz pretty much exemplifies the style. It leans heavily on b-roll of largely unmasked workers in a production facility, checking on boxes of macaroni and jugs of ketchup as they roll down the line. In voice-over, a Kraft Heinz worker speaks about how much she and her co-workers care, and about how proud she is to be able to do her part to help. According to Reuters, Kraft Heinz has offered factory employees an additional $100 per week during this crisis—but the bonus is tied to attendance, which means that if you stay home because you feel sick, you’re not getting the extra money. So while I don’t doubt this worker’s sincerity, I also don’t doubt that it’s more than just a sense of duty that is compelling her to keep on coming to work. Anyway, let’s check back in a year and see if she still has a job.
The “We’ve Got This” Ad
Also known as the “COVID-19 is tough … but not as tough as the American spirit” ad, these commercials posit that we will get through this crisis, one way or another, because we’re Americans, or something like that. The evidence these ads marshal is rarely convincing, but flawless logic isn’t really what these ads are going for; treacly sentiment is. This Michelob Ultra commercial, which also furthers the beer’s odd insistence on positioning itself as a post-workout beer (this should not be a thing), fits this mold. “Now’s the time for us all to show off our strength,” the narrator pleads, over footage of people exercising indoors. These people certainly look strong! But the strongest move of all in these troubled times, according to the ad, is to stay inside. “Stay in. Stay active. Enjoy,” the narrator says, as a hand twists a cap off a cold bottle of Michelob Ultra. The inescapable takeaway: America will beat this virus with a steady regimen of dumbbell curls, social distancing, and 2.6-carb dishwater beers.
The “CEO in the Shot” Ad
These commercials mostly feature a CEO looking directly into the camera and delivering a reassuring message, one often involving a charitable donation or a giving initiative. Here’s a great example from the sub chain Jersey Mike’s, starring its founder, who is not actually named Jersey Mike, which makes me automatically suspicious of this ad. “Growing up in my hometown, I watched two local businessmen give unconditionally to their local community. And with that, Jersey Mike’s mission statement was born,” says founder Peter Cancro. (If you think that the mission statement is something like “sell inexpensive deli sandwiches in hundreds of locations nationwide,” then you are wrong.) Cancro goes on to announce that 20 percent of its sales during a weekend in late April will be donated to charity. Got it, Not Jersey Mike!
The “Hands Across America and Also in Your Pockets” Ad
In these troubled times, these ads hope to convince viewers that they can indeed help save the world by spending money, and that the best way to do that is to route those funds through a profit-seeking middleman. My favorite example of this particularly smarmy approach comes from Grubhub, the food delivery app, which has been running a spot featuring footage from beloved restaurants around the country, urging people to order food from them so that they do not go out of business. A good idea! But left unsaid in the ad is the mounting resentment felt toward Grubhub by restaurateurs around the country, many of whom claim that the app’s high fees are debilitating. The real solution here would be to pick up the phone and call in your order directly from the restaurant so that the restaurant can keep all of the money—but that’s not easy either, given that Grubhub sometimes still charges restaurants fees even if you call them, because the company has reportedly salted the internet with fake phone numbers that actually connect you with Grubhub. “Restaurants are our family,” the ad insists. I guess that makes Grubhub akin to your shifty cousin from out of town who refuses to repay the money you lent him in 2007?
The “Hi, We’re Clean Now” Ad
Remember the world? Remember all of the businesses in it that, regardless of their other attributes, were never primarily known for cleanliness? These ads want to reassure you that these places are clean now, very, very clean, and that you needn’t be afraid that buying things from them will put you at risk of contracting the coronavirus. For example, in the Before Times, no one ever associated Little Caesars with hospital-grade sanitation; they associated it with doughy, inexpensive pizzas served hot and ready from a storefront out by the “weird” mall. Well, all of those things are still true, but now Little Caesars wants you to know that their pizzas are cooked at a very high, germ-killing temperature and are thereafter untouched by human hands. The pizza probably tastes like it always did, but, you know, it is now conspicuously clean.
The “We’ve Always Been Clean” Ad
Unlike that Little Caesars spot, these ads brag about companies that purportedly have prized sanitation for years. This commercial for WeatherTech, last seen running a bizarrely superfluous Super Bowl commercial about the company owner’s formerly cancerous dog, is a good example. WeatherTech makes automobile floor mats and other stuff that “have always protected your vehicle … but they’ll also protect you,” the narrator boasts. Why? Because they are composed of “nonporous surfaces that can easily be wiped with germ-killing disinfectants.” As a man who spent Friday trying fruitlessly to thoroughly sanitize the fabric floors and seats of a rental car, I will just say that I am here for what WeatherTech is selling.
The “Really Misjudging the Moment” Ad
These misbegotten spots, which have tapered off as the pandemic has gone on, try and fail to characterize the lockdown as a jolly lark. This Domino’s commercial, which debuted in late March, touts the pizza chain’s contactless delivery initiative, but it also seems to misinterpret stay-at-home lockdowns as joyful affairs in which we all rock out to Bob Seger in our underwear, rather than a terrifying and prolonged exercise in contemplating our own mortality.
Phone companies love to run horrible ads in this vein too. I’m thinking specifically of this Verizon spot that mischaracterizes videoconferencing with friends and loved ones as a heartwarming and joyful activity rather than what it actually is: an inherently frustrating exercise in getting your tech-unsavvy relatives to unmute themselves.
The “We’re Back, Baby!” Commercial
These ads just want the lockdowns to be over with already. They use phrases like “now that we’re all getting back on the road” in order to make the premature reopening of America seem like an inevitability rather than a choice. This recent Infiniti ad is a good example. “As we all move back into the world, your Infiniti retailer might not be the first place you’ll want to go,” the narrator suggests, which to my mind is really underselling the deep, yearning bond that most people have with their Infiniti retailers. The ad features footage of exclusively nonmasked people frolicking on sand dunes, embracing lustily on driveways, and removing a cello case from a car trunk. “Go. Explore. Do the things you’ve been waiting to do. We’ll meet you there,” the narrator says. Hopefully with the ventilators people will need after jumping back into the world before it’s safe to do so. We’re back, baby!
The “This Ad Is Actually Helpful” Ad
The rarest breed of all! In another Domino’s spot, this one from April, a bunch of franchisees stand inside their restaurants, stare directly into their low-res cameras, and announce that they are hiring. “If getting some full- or part-time work during these tough times could help you, Domino’s is hiring,” the franchisees say, before directing potential applicants to a website and encouraging them to apply today. “We’re committed to helping you put food on your table,” the ad concludes, and as long as that food isn’t a steady diet of Domino’s pizza—don’t do that!—I can get behind the sentiment.