Together, these ads reveal a pandemic dystopia with a particularly American twist. With unpredictable government-aid coffers, most companies that want to remain solvent through an extended catastrophe will have to master the precarious, high-stakes art of disastertising. To do it, they’ll need to persuade you that giving them your money is an act of solidarity.
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By most accounts, the coronavirus catastrophe became real to advertisers around the same time it did for lots of Americans: when the NBA suspended its season. “That’s when we were like, ‘Oh, this is going to be big, and it’s going to change consumer behavior and affect people’s lives for real,’” says Fernando Machado, the chief marketing officer for Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King, Popeyes, and Tim Hortons. The company shut down all its offices in the country and threw out its existing advertising plans. Its new ads spotlight low-contact payment and the plan to scoot bags of food out the drive-through window on a tray. If the company’s restaurants were going to pay employees and order supplies, it wanted people to know they could still come buy food.
At Domino’s, the situation was similar, according to Kate Trumbull, a vice president of advertising at the company. The pizza giant scrapped an ad campaign that showed customers standing close to one another, rolled out information about its hands-free food-packaging practices, and repurposed a Risky Business–themed ad to address social distancing. (Sliding around at home in your socks and underwear is all too relevant to many viewers now.)
Chain restaurants like these have an edge when it comes to disastertising. Most small restaurants have had to close during the pandemic because they have no delivery infrastructure or can’t sustain themselves on takeout alone. Grocery stores force people into close contact, sometimes run short on staple goods, and have few or no delivery options in many parts of the country. Pizza delivery and drive-through, meanwhile, are convenient enough to be recast as public services. On top of that, chains can advertise that they're offering thousands of low-wage food-service jobs to Americans who have lost their income in the past few weeks. “We are open, and we are hiring,” Trumbull says. “If there’s one way that Domino’s could actually help right now, that’s the way.”
Both Machado and Trumbull say that Americans have greeted their companies’ efforts with near-uniform positivity. Customers, they say, are grateful for the information about pandemic-related services and safety procedures. Marketing executives of course have a vested interest in the perceived success of their work, but some evidence exists that people actually do appreciate companies that disseminate this information, even if the ads themselves are a little corny. A recent survey by the data company Morning Consult asked participants what they’d prefer to see in ads during the pandemic, and among the eight options, by far the most popular choice was ads that explain how companies have changed their services. Explicit information about safety procedures was also among the top requests.