Note: Given the subject matter of this video/article, I understand that certain viewers might not want to enter into the discussion. Totally understandable. Click away if you don’t want to think about this stuff right now, but for the most part, this is a call-out video criticizing companies and marketing agencies. We won’t be talking much about the pandemic itself. Also, I’m going to be talking about commercials from companies that have nothing to do with healthcare and don’t have direct involvement with combatting the pandemic. I have no problem with commercials from charities or other entities that are just trying to provide vital information.
Another Note: Below you’ll find a rough transcript of the above video, for the hearing impaired and anyone who doesn’t want to listen to my voice. I’ll also give a language warning. This was a bit of an angry one.
I’m making this in May of 2020, so by this point, we’ve all seen about a million commercials that address the pandemic.
The hallmarks of these commercials are basically all the same. In fact, I tried to make a parody commercial that used all the tropes of coronavirus advertising, but it went nowhere and I recently found a video that covers the similarities by editing a bunch of these commercials together.
It’s a fun video, but even the video description doesn’t really say much outside of, “These are all the same and companies need to be more creative with their advertising.”
That’s not really the message I want to communicate here. And yeah, it’s annoying that all these commercials are basically the same, but I’m much more bothered by the fact that they exist at all. More importantly, these commercials collectively communicate something about how corporations have been trying for a long time now to seem personable and human in an attempt to increase profits and brand loyalty and counter criticism of their ethics.
That question of image and branding will be the meat of the video, but first I just want to express my personal feelings about these commercials and how it’s just about impossible to avoid them.
And you know what? I’m not going to mention any of these brands by name. I don’t want to promote them in any way. I think what they’re doing is disgusting, and even when you say negative things about something on the internet, you end up promoting it in one way or another.
If you’ve seen these commercials, you know exactly who the worst offenders are, and even if you haven’t been watching them, you can probably guess which brands are arrogant enough to speak up about a pandemic when it’s just not their place at all.
Boy oh boy, I hate these commercials. I know, that’s not the craziest reaction to commercials in general, and I have to admit that ever since I moved away from traditional television, I’ve really started to be bothered by traditional video advertising.
I use adblockers online, so even if I’m watching YouTube for 8 hours straight, I just don’t have to watch commercials at all, and it’s really easy to get used to that.
But then I recently started to watch some stuff on Hulu, and I have the plan where I still have to watch commercials. Even in general, this is awful. After spending a significant amount of time away from commercials, it’s really striking just how bad and formulaic they really are.
They’re grating, wildly unoriginal (especially car commercials) and just plain trashy in a lot of cases.
And the worst part of commercials has always been their repetition. If you watch TV with any amount of regularity, you will see the same commercials literally hundreds of times. That repetition is a powerful tool for advertisers. Even if you’re not paying attention to a commercial every time it comes on, you’ll probably be able to identify the brand behind it.
So when the Covid commercials came about, it was kind of a perfect storm.
I was watching more content than usual, by a lot, and that content was peppered with the same handful of repeated commercials that reminded me at every opportunity that, A, the world was in the midst of an enormous crisis, and, B, that I could still buy stuff.
And this is where those similarities we talked about earlier come into play, because once you’ve seen one of these commercials, you’ve seen them all: piano music, euphemisms for the current situation, and vaguely positive statements about the stability and reliability of the company in question.
They blur together so completely that every commercial break feels like several minutes of the same thing, over and over and over and over and over and over and over, until you no longer want to watch whatever show you were watching.
I think my goodwill lasted the length of a single covid commercial. Ever since, seeing one of these commercials or even just hearing slow piano music makes me actively angry.
Companies do not understand how they are negatively affecting viewers with these commercials, especially viewers who suffer from severe anxiety, depression, or other mental disorders. They absolutely don’t. Sarah Zed made a great video on how a lot of people are defaulting to despair and negativity because there’s no separation between entertainment and serious real-world news and allusions to current events. Social media platforms are the biggest offenders in this department, thanks to users posting content about whatever they want, which right now includes a lot of limp commentary on what’s happening, but now even TV and TV surrogates like streaming services have fallen into exactly the same trap.
Most of us are not on the front lines of the virus, and as such, we don’t need to be constantly reminded that it’s happening. As long as we’re staying at home and doing what we can to help the people in our lives, we don’t need to think about it constantly. If we want updates on what’s going on, we’ll go to a news service. We will decide when we want to engage with the pandemic.
But as it stands now, a lot of people can’t escape these little reminders. If you have access to a streaming service that doesn’t have commercials, god bless, you can really escape. But if you don’t have that luxury, you’re basically trapped. You have to stay off your phone, stay away from your computer, and keep the TV switched off.
And you know what? If I was a nurse or a doctor or a grocery store clerk, or anyone else who is risking their own health every single day and coming face to face with the effects of this historic tragedy, I can’t imagine how angry and frustrated and depressed I would be to have these commercials shoved into my face during my few precious hours of downtime.
This brings us to those commercials that act like they’re thanking employees for their hard work. (By the way, that’s not the real purpose of these commercials: the real point is to show the general public that these companies really do care about their employees, and so the rest of us should give us their money.) You know what you should do if you really want to thank your employees?
Instead of spending money to produce and air ads a hundred times every hour, give that money to your employees. Give them more money. Your words mean nothing. Your employees don’t work for you because they think you’re a great company that really cares. They work for you because they need money to live. Give them more money. Give them a big fat bonus with a post-it note that just says, “Thanks.” That would have real impact. Stop spending money to tell us civilians that you’re a great employer, you absolute fucking clowns.
I’ve taken a few deep breaths. Here’s a tip from me to you: meditation is a helpful daily practice, especially right now, and you can do it without subscribing to any paid service or spiritual system. It helps keep your brain and your body healthy. So nowadays, when commercials come on, I mute the TV, close my eyes, and just do some deep breathing. It’s great, and if you’re just as angry about covid commercials as I am, I highly recommend it.
What is Up, Fellow Humans?
So now let’s talk about how covid commercials communicate something much broader about contemporary corporate advertising and how corporations interact with their customers, whether through advertising, customer support, or in-store interactions.
The big topic here is that of corporate humanization. Obviously, this idea has its roots in politics. There’s a very long history to this, and this NPR article does a great job of breaking it down. But one of the big pushes for corporations to have rights we typically associate with human beings was in 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could spend money on state ballet initiatives.
In 2010, these rights were expanded, and it created a strange legal precedent for corporations being treated, in certain ways, like US citizens.
I’m not going to say that this is the precise reason for the rise of more personable branding, but it does seem like a very interesting coincidence that, based on my recollection, this style of advertising got really big in the late 2000s.
Remember the Visa ads during the Olympics? They’ve been sponsoring the Olympics for a long time, but I remember there being a ton of humanist Visa ads during the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
The features of these kinds of commercials will be immediately recognizable to anyone who engages with media, and covid ads are definitely using a lot of the same techniques:
You’ve got some uplifting and vaguely epic-sounding music played over voiceover laced with platitudes that don’t actually communicate anything of import. The footage usually looks like slightly glossier stock footage, most of it showing people just doing things, maybe doing inspiring things worthy of clickbait articles, covering as many different ethnic and cultural groups as possible.
Tantacrul talked about this style in a very good video. It’s so good I’m even gonna use a clip from it. If he wants to yell at me to take it down, that’s fine. But his analysis is just spot-on.
Something you’ll probably notice about these humanist-style commercials is that they largely avoid talking about the brand in any meaningful way. It would be nearly impossible to tell, just from one of these ads, what each company actually does.
This is thanks in part to the size and ubiquity of the companies in question. These are multinationals we already know about, all of us. You can’t get away from these companies.
And this is where I’d like to mention a marketing concept that was introduced to me years ago.
A large percentage of marketing materials don’t actually aim to explain a service or a product. When it comes to the really, really big companies that everyone knows just through osmosis, the main goal is just to encourage continued loyalty. Sure, every company wants to attract new buyers, but when a company already has a tight grip on an entire market, the main goal is to keep consumers in their camp. “Keep buying our thing. We just wanted to remind you that we’re great and that you’re right to stick with us.”
And this attempt to seem more personable isn’t limited to advertising, of course, but extends to the entire customer-facing presence of a brand.
This is why employees in most stores wear name tags.
In certain cases, employees are encouraged to incorporate their personal style and sense of individuality into their work clothes and even how they interact with customers.
In fact, I have even spoken with marketing professionals who work for very large apps that encourage local events. And they told me, directly, that one of the most powerful things any retail location can do is to encourage customers to feel like regulars. People want the Cheers experience, and if they find it, they’ll keep coming back. They don’t want to feel like they’re interacting with a corporate appendage, but instead that they’re just having a chat with David, the guy who shows them where the sweaters are.
And this is the part where I need to say that I’m not completely opposed to making customer-company interactions more human. It’s an effective method and it can make these interactions much more pleasant for the people who engage with a company.
But unless that company does some serious profit-sharing with their employees, regardless of rank, then what’s happening is they’re using the personalities of their employees as part of their product or service. They’re selling the individuality of their employees to increase profits. That’s what it is, that’s what happening when any company does this.
The humanist approach to branding is also a way to counteract criticism, whether that criticism is currently active or not.
Someone who’s reasonably well-informed might not want to shop at a certain retail clothing store because that company uses manufacturing methods that exploit workers in foreign countries by denying them a living wage or violating basic human rights.
But that same person might be on the fence. Yeah, they don’t necessarily want to support this company, which is itself part of a much larger corporate entity that owns a large number of individual brands, but buying clothes from responsible and environmentally sustainable retailers is significantly more expensive and far less convenient.
So, they still need to buy some new clothes. They’re kind of stuck. All of a sudden, they switch on the TV to watch some Master Chef Jr. and they see this dramatic, seemingly heartfelt commercial, or maybe it’s a commercial that makes them laugh. And look at that, it’s from that morally questionable clothing company. Over the course of the next several weeks, this person sees that same commercial literally dozens and dozens of times.
The next time they’re shopping online, a convenient sale might be enough to tip them over the edge. Oh well, they say, I don’t exactly agree with how they operate, but my $30 isn’t going to make a big difference.
This is the whole point of branding: “Instead of forming your own impressions of our company and its ethics, adopt the impressions we want you to have of us.”
And it’s effective. If it wasn’t, companies wouldn’t be advertising this way. If you don’t think advertising affects you, that’s pretty good proof that it does.
The covid commercials are just this whole method on steroids. They don’t talk directly about the pandemic, and they don’t talk directly about their products. Instead, they put the brand’s name into your brain as often as possible. Your subconscious will do the rest of the work for them.
Before we finish up, I want to play devil’s advocate for a bit, especially because anyone who says something like, “advertising is bad and it should all go away,” immediately feels out of touch. That whole anti-advertising movement was big in the 90s with Adbusters and all that. And I sympathize with that perspective, but I also don’t think the elimination of all advertising is realistic in any way, especially now that brands can create targeted ads based on peoples’ internet activity and entertainment viewing habits.
So just for fun, I’d like to offer an alternative to sappy, brain-dead covid commercials.
Let’s say you have a big company and you want to capitalize on the increase in content consumption and make up for recent financial losses. Ok, sure.
Here’s what you do: just make a commercial. You know what people would really love right now? Regular commercials. Just make regular ol’ commercials that blend into the background. Let people escape. Let people relax. Let them enjoy their entertainment as entertainment, not as a minefield of stress-triggers.
Say anything, say anything at all as long as it isn’t about this. Absolutely anything else would be a better basis for your commercial. That way, all these millions of viewers won’t come to actively hate you.
I won’t speak for anyone else. Maybe I’m alone in this. But I haaaate these commercials, and they make me hate your company. I couldn’t possibly care less about your second-quarter profits. I want you to crumble until I’m left with only the memories of your trashy, lazy, completely empty advertising. Let it burn. Once you’re gone, we might have something that resembles a free market, one where competition is allowed to poke its head above water without being obliterated or otherwise absorbed into your cascading, cancerous fat folds.
Fuck you for having the gall to talk to me about one of the most serious challenges the human race has faced for hundreds of years. You don’t get to tell me how to feel, and you don’t get to pretend that you care about any of us outside of our ability to give you some of the little money we have, money that is already being sapped by unemployment and the costs of our most basic human needs.
Give money to your employees. Give money to charity and don’t tell us about it. You’re not one of us and you never will be, you ass-munching sacks of toxic refuse.
For any actual humans out there, you’re doin’ great. If you’re not at risk, help people out. Don’t listen to politicians and conspiracy theorists who want to throw bodies at the problem. Read some books, plan vacations for a year from now. Find ways to be happy, it’s still allowed.