Whether we like it or not, American media consumers are subjected to a lexicon of advertising-speak, and the sum total of this language can become a certain way of thinking. It’s a rhetoric that diffuses into our consciousness.
The lexicon of ads is, essentially, the attempt to make the mundane and ordinary bold and theatrical. It’s operatic arias about Tide pens. It’s those vaguely erotic 5 Gum commercials. It’s a billboard that promises you irresistibility to women if you use a certain shower gel. We accepted this, whether we believed it or not. And then COVID-19 hit.
COVID has taken the bombastic mundanity of ad jargon and raised the stakes. Suddenly we were in a solemn world of heroes who put their lives on the line, risking it all in these trying times, in these uncertain times, in these unprecedented times. We’re now in a world where companies are there for you and your family, supporting you every step of the way, building trust for a future you can believe in more than ever before as we take it one day at a time hand in hand together. Says Amanda Hess of the New York Times, “The hallmarks of Coronavirus ads are so consistent, they could be generated by bots.” (And that’s just what our man Rob Meyer did.)
In “normal times,” we’re more used to the standard image set that accompanies ad copy–a visual codex of people hugging their wheelchair-bound parents and holding up handmade signs at airports, every dog a golden retriever.
These days, such images are replaced, almost entirely, by people doing “from home” activities like making pasta and playing goofy games with their kids. All of this is, of course, underscored by that same sad refrain of piano music that’s so discordant to the messages of hope and unity, that it really makes you wonder who these happy homebodies have hidden in their basements.
Beyond the surface juxtaposition of “we’re in this together” and the happy-sad audiovisuals it accompanies, there is something more deeply vexing about these COVID-era ads. It’s not like the mosquito buzz of pre-virus commercials; it’s about the ease with which companies dial into this robotic language of empathy, the sober truth-telling about what’s to come, and the inevitable hairpin turn into trying to sell a product. The feeling viewers are left with is something like getting a greeting card where the sender asks for $20.
We’re used to commercials trying to woo us into an emotional state, but we’re not used to them targeting things that actually matter to us, our real fears and our total paralysis.
This is when the nonstop hum of automated sentiment turns into fingernails on a chalkboard.
The general result of any ad during this crisis is sheer bafflement that this industry, so benignly irritating in the beforetimes, is thriving on the ability to prey upon every demographic at once. We’re all stuck here united by a common fear, no longer stratified into interest groups. Of course the ad industry wouldn’t pass up a chance like this–but the robotic language, the repetitive images and themes? That’s just proof that they don’t care whether you take the bait or not. It’s not like you’re going anywhere.
I want them to stop. I want to smash my TV up with a bat the next time Geico tells me that it’s rooting for me. I don’t want this ad language to seep into the collective conscience of Year 2021, I want some peace. Some real peace.
But I’m not going to get it, so this top 10 list of worst COVID-era ads (so far) is going to have to do.
10. State Farm Insurance – “New Normal”
If you’re reading this on our website, you’re probably already aware that the “old normal” was already pretty terrible, especially as far as the privatization of public needs was concerned. So when an insurance company (best known for their commercial schtickiness falling into a distant third behind Geico and Progressive) promises a swift return to the old ways, we know they’re counting on the “new normal” being essentially as messed up as the old one.
It’s worth noting that State Farm offers numerous forms of life insurance, and that they stand to gain exponentially from a public health crisis. Recall that, in August, teachers across the nation were instructed to create living wills and file for life insurance. That’s why the line, “To any of our customers currently facing financial burdens, call your State Farm agent, cuz we’re here to help…” is so very chilling.
Can’t afford our rates now that you or your loved ones may actually die very soon? Call us and we’ll do… something. We won’t tell you what it is in our commercial, but if you wait on our Customer Service line for a few hours, you may or may not lose your faith in humanity completely.
9. Colgate – “Our Smiles Keep Us Together”
A lot of (read: most) companies don’t actually have to make their current advertising campaigns about COVID-19. But, as mentioned earlier, the opportunity to talk to the entire nation, rather than isolated demographics, is too rich to pass up.
So, the challenge becomes– How do we make our product fit into the context of a public health disaster? How do we make toothpaste about the pandemic? How do we make the pandemic about toothpaste?
It’s simple: We imply that you can’t call your family and share the precious gift of your smile if your teeth aren’t fucking white.
Imagine having your granny hang up on you because your smile wasn’t literally bright enough.
“He ruined my whole day,” area grandmother explained. “I hope he doesn’t call again until he buys some Colgate.”
8. Honda – “#StayHome”
A major complaint among critics, where COVID-era ads are concerned, is that the nature of the medium forces the sentiment to be about them and their efforts. This is the antithesis of advertising COVIDbabble that seeks to remind the viewer that it’s all about us, and we.
Some companies try to walk that line, or at least pretend to. Not Honda.
This whole ad is about the making of the ad. It’s the first! Honda commercial! Made in a completely socially-distanced setting! Look at us! Look what we did!
While this ad was being produced, an enormous swath of the country learned that their work could have easily been done from home the entire time. Honda makes no acknowledgement of this. They’re just so proud that they were able to adapt to a WFH environment that they want you to scrape together some awe and inspiration for them.
Also–“Until we drive again?” How exactly did the pandemic alter the way we use cars? It’s not like everybody stopped driving as soon as the stay-at-home mandate began. Somebody had to deliver your DoorDash.
7. Ikea – “Your House Has Something To Tell You”
I can’t talk about this commercial without mentioning the abject creepiness of the text. Never in my life have I read ad copy so cartoonishly similar to what someone would say on a particularly skippable episode of Criminal Minds.
“Do you remember when we first met? Come on… Feel me. Smell me.” For that reason alone, this IKEA spot would deserve a place on a list of bad commercials in any context, but luckily for me, it’s able to strike a nasty tone specifically in regards to the pandemic.
Like the Colgate spot, we have the big reach: “You’re stuck at home, get it? We make furniture! Furniture goes in a home. Why not just buy more furniture if you’re stuck at home?”
But it’s worse than that. Because that little line about “get[ting] our heads in order,” is part of a strain of my absolute least favorite trend in civilian COVID discourse: Passive-agressively nagging people to be more productive.
How many times have I heard that “Shakespeare wrote his best works during the Black Plague?” Or been told that now is an extra special time for “creatives?” Gosh, think of all the things I could knit.
Friends. This is one of the worst chapters in American history. It’s not a time to “get our heads together,” as if the impassivity generated by constant fear, trauma, and isolation is somehow our own fault. It’s a time to just fucking survive. You just need to get through this, nothing more.
If that involves replacing all your furniture with plastic sweatshop chairs from Sweden, then by all means. But don’t do it because IKEA told you to.
6. Dove – “Courage is Beautiful”
Oh, Dove. Dove, Dove, Dove. How many different ways can this company backhandedly slight individuals (mainly women) by calling them beautiful in ~unexpected ways~? This brand, which sells $2 toiletries at any given Wal-Mart, is so obsessed with the bohemian notion of beauty that any attempt on its part to enlighten the public automatically reeks reductive and patronizing.
So. What is it about front-line workers, our heroic doctors and nurses, that is so striking—beyond their weary, mask-indented faces? It’s their courage. The courage that carves itself into their very skin.
Courage is many things, but to call it beautiful simply repeats Dove’s belittling pattern of, “here’s something people are supposed to think is unsightly. We’ve decided that it isn’t.”
Congrats to Dove and Unilever for tossing medical workers into the same stew of people they can exploit, I mean, uplift.
5. Frito-Lay – “It’s About People”
“The world doesn’t need brands to tell us how to think or feel,” says the brand that is immediately going to tell us how to think and feel.
Somehow, it must have skimmed by the Frito-Lay copywriters that an ad denouncing brand-driven bids for attention shouldn’t consist entirely of a brand making a bid for attention. This ad manages to surpass the cringy obliviousness of Honda’s “yay us!” message into complete and utter bathos.
I’m not going to touch on the fact that the world absolutely and emphatically does NOT “Need[…] brands to take action.” Nor will I reassure them into thinking that by not changing their logo or asking for donations (by whom?? The public??) makes them “one of those good brands.”
I truly think Frito-Lay busted the ruse wide open with this one. Other companies sought to artfully cover up their uselessness in the face of disaster by making heavy, making light, making donations, making absurd logo changes. It apparently didn’t sit well with Frit0-Lay that a multi-billion dollar snack food company just doesn’t have what it takes to cure the Coronavirus, but boy oh boy do they still want to feel special.
Also, regarding their donations of “nutritious meals,” I think that, based on the ingredients in a Cheeto, a person has a right to be suspicious.
4. Hotels.com – “Places”
Weirdly enough, I discovered this ad in an article by Forbes that listed it as one of the good ones. I honestly don’t know how this commercial wasn’t immediately pulled from public view, but lo and behold, it’s just a YouTube search away if you feel like puking in your mouth a little bit.
First of all–and this more of a bummer than anything else–they’ve decided to cash in on the abysmal meme-speak that’s graced over a thousand Twitter posts to date, each one unaware of those preceding it. Who was the first person to say, “remember when places were a thing??? HAHA” Dunno, but I know it wasn’t some sunglasses-indoors hotshot on the Hotels.com ad team.
Then, there’s the notion that folks can’t afford the new dystopian price of toilet paper, but they can afford to go to Miami Beach Resort. The logic behind this ad is an ouroboros: It’s telling us that we are deeply affected by the pandemic lockdown, but not affected enough to put off our trip to Napa.
And finally, there’s the absolutely bananas message that unrestrained and uninhibited travel should continue during a pandemic. They even make the tragically myopic assertion that you can always cancel your reservation and, I don’t know, reschedule for the week after “in case things are still weird later.”
Well. It is later, buddy, and yeah. Things are still weird.
The Top 3: Coors Light Corner
3. Coors Light – “Shower Beer”
The Official Beer of Drinking in the Shower. #CoorsLight #MadeToChill pic.twitter.com/8BWHYCeAFM
— Coors Light (@CoorsLight) July 31, 2019
Coors Light has plumbed the depths of bad taste in a field already inundated with horrible marketing moves. By my count, at least two of their COVID ads (this one and #1) have apparently been pulled due to controversy, or, in layman’s terms, staggering insensitivity.
And I mean, I get it. Alcohol is one of those commodities that actually does have a function during a pandemic. In fact, it’s tricky to condemn a company for encouraging over-consumption when that’s just what I, and most people I know, have been doing. But what a gambit, I mean, what a cunning, capricious way to get people to buy more of your product by telling them it’s okay to get addicted to it now.
It may not be super clear in this particular ad, but you’ll see. The entire ethos behind this, and the two following commercials, is that the only way to make it through this crisis is to really, really tie one on.
And notice how they tell viewers not to attempt drinking in the shower. They can’t legally advocate the thing they’re advocating!
(Even though it’s fucking awesome.)
2. Coors Light – “#CouldUseABeer”
The sucky, sucky suckiness of the COVID-19 pandemic sure is sucky, right? This ad, inexplicably narrated by Paul Giamatti, reminds the viewer that alcohol has always sat right beside them in times of public strife. That’s about as far as Coors Light is willing to go down that rabbit hole, because the more you think about the odd coincidence between alcohol and sorrow, the more reasons there are to leave that whole mess alone.
“Did it solve anything?” asks Coors Light, of the repeal of the 18th amendment. “Of course not.” (Which also isn’t true–the 21st amendment was ratified in order to bring more industry in during the Great Depression–not to resupply the public with cheer-up juice–so it kinda did have a purpose after all, but I digress…)
And so, in the spirit of not solving anything, Coors Light launched a campaign to deliver free packs of beer to anyone who tweets to them “[person’s name]#coulduseabeer.”
The absolute asininity of this exercise culminated when Coors Light delivered 10 cases of beer to 93-year-old Olive Veronesi, who made a cheeky little sign in her window about needing more beer that went viral. The woman apparently had a beer every single night and was down to her last twelve. I can’t say whether or not Ms. Veronesi is an alcoholic, but I know that being left alone with ten cases of beer during a quarantine is enough to change a habit.
I’m leaving the news segment here, but I warn those who watch it that it’s actually pretty sad (the newscasters laugh at her), and might make you want to cry into a nicer beer than Coors Light.
1. Coors Light – “Official Beer of Working Remotely”
Seeing this particular commercial actually gave me the idea to write this article. When I watched it for the first time, I wondered how long it would take before it became banned, and apparently I undershot my guess because it is so very banned that not only can I not find any clips of it anywhere, but all of the articles about its withdrawal are paywalled.
Here’s what happens: In various scenes, we see a man (or maybe multiple men) going about the drudgery of their daily lives in lockdown, but it’s morning and they’re drinking Coors Light. In one scene, a man takes a sip and is instantly transported to a field of daisies, where he skips around and sings. Smash cut and he’s back at his desk, on some Zoom work call listening to his coworkers prattle on, but he smiles, because hidden from view is his can of Coors Light.
Perhaps Coors Light’s tack of openly not giving a shit about you, as opposed to pretending to care during These Trying Times, is actually a break from the echo chamber of COVIDbabble proffered by corporations. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, even if you’re like me and cynicism is pretty much the only way to reach you.
Regardless of approach, all of these ads have one thing in common, and that is that sweet, relentless, American optimism we’ve all known since birth. It’s the impetus for us to get out of bed and fill our days with meaning by buying shit. Some commercials instill this optimism by reminding us of hearth and home and the things that matter most. Coors Light is optimistic, too. The pandemic isn’t so bad; at least now you get to be drunk at work.