Pandemic Advertising Got Weird Fast

Welcome to disastertising.

Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

A few weeks ago, as millions of Americans settled into home confinement in a desperate effort to stymie an era-defining pandemic, Little Caesars invited them to step up to its Pizza Portal, a virus-hostile pie locker that circumvents the need for human interaction. Little Caesars was not the only brand—or, for that matter, the only pizza company—that wanted people to know their lockdown options. Commercials by Domino’s and Papa John’s reminded viewers that the heat of pizza ovens annihilates germs. Others had different ideas: Become a Burger King Couch Potatriot with a socially distant burger delivery. Buy a face mask from Forever 21 and it will donate a mask to a person in need. Take up to 25 percent off kitchen-organizing essentials at the Container Store. Buy a whole Hyundai on the internet.

Even in a culture numbed to viral stunt marketing, these abrupt pivots to the pandemic in television commercials, social-media posts, and marketing emails have been hard to ignore. It’s jarring to see advertisers, usually so optimistic about their products as a means to improve lives or grant happiness, forced to acknowledge that things in America are broadly terrible. Some viewers have noted an unsettlingly similar solemnity across brands’ pledges to protect and serve their clientele. Others have found comfort in the commercials’ shoddy earnestness; if America’s salespeople have no choice but to share in everyone’s uncertainty, then maybe the country is mostly united after all.

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.

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.

There are many reasons Americans might embrace this performance of coronavirus care, including the simple comfort of knowing that companies that sell your favorite french fries or service your car have given at least a passing thought to your safety. But there might also be a certain appeal in hearing clear, useful information from whatever powerful American institutions are willing to supply it right now, when guidance from the U.S. government—the institution ostensibly most responsible for providing it—has been slow, inconsistent, and confusing. Plus, advertising gives businesses far broader and easier access to people’s attention than other sources of solid safety information have, such as public-health experts or epidemiologists, who offer sound guidance in far less profitable ways.

In the past decade or so, deepening cultural and political divisions in America have frequently led to perceived leadership vacuums, in which broad consensus is difficult to rally for any particular institution or person. Those vacuums have often been filled by brands that see social issues as an opportunity to connect with customers—especially younger ones, who want to believe that there’s a right way to spend their money. “That comes from a mix of deep cynicism and heady idealism” on the part of young people, says Jessica Greenwood, the global chief marketing officer at the advertising agency R/GA, which works with brands such as Nike, Airbnb, and Verizon. “They want to believe that these companies can change the world, but also they’re very cynical about being sold to.” In the Morning Consult survey, people under 40 were more likely than their older counterparts to think advertising should cease entirely during the pandemic, but they also generally responded more positively than older people to recent ads that struck a useful, empathetic tone.

Today’s disastertising does merit plenty of cynicism. Beyond the plausibly useful ads, quarantine TV is flooded with messages of vague support from soda brands, insurance companies, or tech firms, set to sensitive melodies. Many of those ads feature the voices of executives insisting that we’re all in this together, while those executives might be self-isolating in sunny vacation compounds. This worst kind of messaging flies beyond the bounds of simple uselessness and lands at full-on smarm; there’s no value except to the company itself, reminding you that it’s still around to accept whatever money you have left.

The canniest disastertisers, meanwhile, aren’t relying on tone-deaf ads to rally people to their cause. Instead of traditional avenues, many companies have turned to conspicuous acts of charity. AB InBev, which owns Budweiser, has donated $5 million and some of its advertising airtime to the Red Cross, and the company is using some of its facilities to manufacture hand sanitizer. Apple has donated millions of masks and other protective gear to health-care workers. The shoe brand Crocs donated thousands of pairs of rubber clogs to health-care workers, then paid Priyanka Chopra to post about its good works on her Instagram account. Machado says that Burger King has donated more than 1 million meals to hungry kids through a charity partner. “Yes, it’s marketing, but it takes into account the context that people are in and the impact on their lives,” he says.

Read: The four rules of pandemic economics

Small local businesses pioneered many of these most popular pandemic charity ideas. But local companies largely lack the public-relations muscle or name recognition necessary to receive national media attention and public support, which R/GA’s Greenwood says is crucial for companies hoping to survive. “Everybody is watching Netflix and listening to Spotify premium and spending a lot of time in places that don’t have ads,” she notes. “In that environment, the tools that you have available to you as an advertiser are PR and social media—things that respond really well to newsworthy actions.” For big companies, an act doesn’t even have to be all that grand: Coors Light recently won press appreciation for delivering 150 cans of its product to an elderly woman who had put a sign in her window bemoaning her lack of beer.

But charity doesn’t guarantee plaudits for major companies, Greenwood cautions. When a brand courts positive attention, “people immediately look at your corporate practices and say, ‘Well, you’re expressing solidarity, but you’re not paying your workers,’ or ‘You’re expressing solidarity but refusing to shut down your warehouses,’” she says. “It’s super, super important right now to have all your ducks in a row, because if you want to say anything that’s meaningfully human at this time, you have to be operating in very human ways, and that’s not true of every company.”

This blowback has been particularly swift for the employers of low-wage service workers, who have been drafted into duty as de facto first responders in jobs with few benefits and an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19. Amazon and Instacart workers have gone on strike for better working conditions. Walmart is running ads in which its CEO expresses solemn appreciation for the company’s store employees while those employees work in dangerous conditions and receive meager sick leave. At least two Walmart store employees have died from coronavirus complications so far. (Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.) Many retailers have responded to these complaints with hazard pay, which usually amounts to a few extra bucks an hour, as well as paid sick leave. Accessing sick leave at some companies requires a positive coronavirus test or an official quarantine order, which can be extremely difficult to get until a person is severely ill.

Many fast-food workers experience similar issues with low pay and paltry sick leave, but they face a different set of challenges during the workday. Their restaurants’ dining rooms are largely closed, but commercial kitchens are close quarters, even when run with a skeleton crew. In-store employees for Domino’s have raised concerns about inconsistent safety procedures and the availability of masks and gloves, and Burger King employees fear that they’re still in too much contact with customers. Both Domino’s and Burger King say that they’re doing what’s possible to provide safety gear and sanitizing equipment for employees amid shortages, and that all workers in corporate-owned stores are eligible for paid sick leave.

In spite of disastertising’s pitfalls for brands and how much people may loathe it at times, it’s too late for the country to save itself from the necessity of some kind of advertising during COVID-19. Marketing is tied up in almost all parts of the modern American economy. The sale of goods and services is necessary to keep workers everywhere from factory floors to corporate headquarters fed. Advertising is also the economic engine of much of media, including journalism. If advertisers simply were to go idle, the harm could radiate out to lots of working- and middle-class people with little or no direct connection with advertising itself. In past recessions, companies that maintained their communications presence had an easier time recovering when the economy stabilized, enabling them to retain employees they might have otherwise laid off.

Just how necessary it is to disastertise—to contort a simple message about drive-through lanes or beer delivery to paint a company as public servants during an extraordinary moment—isn’t as clear. Americans seem eager for practical information and opportunities to help, not solemn vows of corporate togetherness. It’s also a choice, not a foregone conclusion, that the American economy is held together by advertising and low-wage workers during a crisis. Overseas, some governments have helped coordinate the distribution of necessary supplies to their homebound citizens, instead of forcing fast-food-delivery people and Walmart cashiers to shoulder the burden with little oversight. For companies whose income has dwindled, many governments are paying the majority of workers’ wages to prevent layoffs and allow more people to stay home.

If disasters have any silver lining, it’s that they give people a rare opportunity to reimagine society. When the pandemic ends, America might try to create a future that’s less reliant on broad public knowledge of virus-killing pizza ovens.