Opinion: Advertisers, stop ignoring the pandemic
Imagine you’ve been living on a deserted island for the last year, then parachuted into a screening room to watch a lineup of some of the most-watched short form videos produced in the last three months—some funny, some tear-jerkers and all of them ads. You’d see plenty of humorous and earnest commercials full of expensive effects, touting beer, cars, animals, snacks and tech. But aside from a few notable brands (Ford, Verizon, American Express) you’d be oblivious to the fact that the world was in the midst of a raging pandemic.
Cultural observers in the future might scratch their heads at how conspicuously absent COVID-19 has been from sponsor messaging during the worst global crisis in 100 years. They might note a growing trend of spots produced remotely, including Slack’s “Sandwich HQ” and Folgers “Folgers, Pants, Phone.” An emphasis on ordering food delivery from local restaurants in commercials from UberEats and DoorDash. Or the technical wizardry of Doritos’ turning 2D “Flat Matthew” into a three-dimensional Matthew McConaughey.
They’d see celebrations, hugs, dancing, living everyday life. What they wouldn’t see: people responsibly living those lives with masks at the ready, keeping their distance and applying more hand sanitizer—just like you and me, every day.
They would also notice many other culturally defining themes: dignity (Indeed, WeatherTech, Dexcom); security (Rocket Mortgage and FindaMortgageBroker.com); wide open spaces (Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s). Plus, the offkey normcore serenade of Oatly’s CEO and the guerilla tactics of Reddit.
Mostly, they’d notice how “normal” everything seemed. And therein lies the problem. Let’s focus on this year’s Super Bowl LV, which was streamed and broadcast to an audience of almost 100 million people. Every single in-game advertiser fumbled the ball by ignoring a pandemic responsible for more than 500,000 U.S. deaths because, as these brands claimed, they were going for “escapism.” In fact, they were guilty of denialism or worse—dereliction of duty.
Doing the right thing would not have required a heavy lift. There are easy, abundant opportunities to insert a tweak here, or a subtle touch there, to remind massive audiences to always reach for their masks, stay six feet apart, get vaccinated, protect loved ones and feel all in it together. A growing list of nationally broadcast TV shows across genres—medical series you’d expect, including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Chicago Med,” “New Amsterdam” and “The Good Doctor,” but also “Superstore” and “black-ish”—have been normalizing safe COVID messaging into scripts. Even Saturday Night Live has been balancing safety protocols with humor for months, just airing a “So You Think You Can Get the Vaccine” skit. So, what’s with advertisers ignoring the massive elephant in the media room?
I’m not advocating putting COVID-19 safety measures front and center in ads. But today, it’s the ever-present context in our lives. How many of you ask, “Where’s my mask?” every time you venture outside? Living safely is the greatest luxury today; it’s the new aspiration.
So, advertising pros, I challenge you to make great creative, do good and get back to business as usual. Show masks in realistic ways, even when they are not being worn—tucked into a pocket, hanging by the door, in a backpack, strapped below the chin. Scenes that show sanitizer or mutual masking help to build trust. Include the new body language: elbow bumps, namaste hands, waving from afar and other new ways to (temporarily) replace hugs, air kisses and handshakes in culture. A Band-Aid on a bare arm can nod to vaccination; taking a step backward signals consciousness of social distancing.
Modeling safe behavior
To get your creative juices flowing, here are a few ways some recent spots could have modeled safe COVID behavior without a whomp-whomp vibe:
How about socially distanced pedestrians wearing masks in the park in Apple’s “Oversharing” commercial?
John Cena and his shotgun-riding buddy could have triumphantly elbow-bumped at the announcement of Mountain Dew’s $1 million-dollar bounty.
Mila Kunis could have used a mask to hide that tell-tale Cheetos dust from Ashton Kutcher.
A mask dangling off the rearview mirror of Bruce Springsteen’s Jeep would have been a subtle, but powerful move toward normalizing face coverings as a way of life.
UberEats probably had serious testing protocols on set before Mike Meyers, Dana Carvey, and Cardi B got cozy on the couch, but how hard would it have been to space out a little bit? (Food delivery services saw a boom from the pandemic. Is promoting safe COVID behavior bad for their businesses?)
For decades, advertising has long been a first mover for normalizing and advocating social change, from a Native American tearing up over garbage, to the first same-sex couple shopping for furniture to a multiracial family sitting down for breakfast. In today’s stakeholder economy, when a company’s values are as important to consumers as the products it makes, it’s critical for advertisers and content creators to normalize safe COVID-19 behavior in their spots. Why? We need role models. Plus, encouraging life-saving behavior is a very good marketing strategy for keeping your customers around.
The sooner we can all normalize safe behavior, the sooner we can get our lives—and our economy—back to “normal.”