Commercials in the Time of COVID-19

Over the past week I’ve noticed a shift on TV. It started when Tyler and I were watched an On Demand episode of “Good Eats”, because I much prefer it to Sports Center without live sports and the “My Cat from Hell” marathon had ended. A commercial featured a black woman in golden choir robes muttering under her breath for the soloist to hurry up. A blue-polo’d Best Buy employee pops in beside her, whispering conspiratorially that they offer next-day delivery “on all kinds of gifts.”

The soloist was singing the final phrase of the “12 Days of Christmas” and the snowflake graphics around the Best Buy logo made it clear this was a holiday commercial. So why was it on at the end of March? 

Because this was On Demand, I saw the commercial again a few minutes later, and this time I paid more attention to it than I had to the show.

I’ve been complaining privately for a few weeks that the ads on TV seem to belong to a different universe, certainly a different era. In the ads, people gather for dinner, sharing fries with their family members. They high five strangers in a sports bar. They meet up with a friend for a brisk walk in the pollen-overrun park. Rooms-to-Go, Home Depot, and Kohl’s urge us to come out for their big sales. Most commercials call for an immediate action, like a trip to go shopping or to go out to eat, and neither are part of this world anymore. I’m not treating myself to Applebee’s after work and I’m not shopping for furniture. I’m not introducing any friends to a Big Mac. I don’t live in that world, or era, anymore. And neither does most of the country.

Last week, however, the commercials that companies seem to have rushed through production began to enter the rotation. Rather than shoot something new, Best Buy pulled out their holiday ad to let us know they’ll deliver online orders tomorrow. The timeliness of the message, for the first time I can remember, was valued so highly that the dated decor and set up was ignored.

The voiceover in one commercial assured me that eventually we will all gather for dinner and safely clink glasses again. A recent Domino’s commercial featuring a pants-less, sock-sliding dancer was reedited so the emphasis was on no contact delivery instead of trackable delivery.

Certain channels are using infographics on 5-second spots to remind us to distance ourselves and wash our hands. Channels are running marathons of their most popular shows and movies (where people hug and shake hands like it’s nothing!!!!! *starts hyperventilating*). Most don’t mention the coronavirus or COVID-19 by name. They merely refer to “the current crisis” and say our social bonds are so important, “especially now.” 

I’m glad that the ads have begun to reflect our different, still-changing reality. It feels less dystopian, less disconnected, less depressing. I want those ads to acknowledge our collective reality, since I know they’re speaking directly to me. Yet I find this somewhat ironic, as I also want to escape the pandemic in what I’m watching and reading. I’ll abide absolutely no stories or movies about hospitals, police, missing people, war, or death. I’m not interested in Marvel movies or Fast & Furious. I would rather eat nothing by PB&J for a week than to watch Avengers: Endgame. I want to be comforted. I want to laugh. Movies and shows and commercials that used to do so don’t anymore.

Live sports would be great to let my mind sink into, but of course we don’t have that outlet, so it’s zany baking shows and books I’ve already read and Sarah Bareilles music videos and animal shows centered on zoos and aquariums. It’s Mythbusters and Moana. It’s Animal Crossing for a lot of people. Nothing competitive, no high stakes. It’s more timing sitting on the couch, doing nothing, and more time looking out the window at whatever’s out there. It’s far more time researching bread baking and liking people’s social media posts about bread baking. It’s dancing Tic Tocs and threads of favorite songs. It’s a lot of quarantine memes.

It’s so strange to know that so much of our usual lives has just… stopped. 

And, of course, so much changes so quickly, yet at different rates in different places. While drafting this post, NYC residents got push notifications asking that everyone with healthcare experience volunteer for hospital shifts ASAP. Reality in NYC is different than mine in Macon, GA. It’s different than in my hometown of Beaufort, SC, which is just beginning to shut down, but I’ve been working from home for two weeks. My cousin in Oklahoma is moving to Georgia this week, and it really is like traveling into a different, more frightening world the farther east she goes.

To a degree, this has always been true. Flint still doesn’t have clean drinking water. The Navajo reservation never has. Three of my friends have had and are recovering from COVID-19. Thousands of people have lost loved ones to it already. The main thing that unites us now is how not normal things are, and how uncertain and frightening that is. And if we can’t even acknowledge that much, that things are not normal, I won’t even consider buying what you’re selling.

Have you seen a commercial that was clearly released or reedited in response to the pandemic? What was it advertising?

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