Welcome to Disastertising, the Plague of the Pandemic

It started with a slew of emails from every single brand you ever had any contact with; the ubiquitous opening line reading “In these uncertain times….” or words to that effect.

It escalated quickly into advertising around the pandemic that was jarring, unsettling and in some cases downright weird.

And consumers have had enough.

“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,” writes Amanda Mull in The Atlantic. 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.”

“Together, these ads reveal a pandemic dystopia with a particularly American twist,” Mull continues. “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.”

Mull reminds us the moment it became “real” for most Americans: when the NBA suspended its season. (For me, that moment came while watching my college ball team play for a spot in the NCAA tournament. I saw that red ticker running underneath and felt a sense that some pivot point had been reached.)

Brands everywhere pitched their ad strategies out the window.

“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,’” said Fernando Machado, the chief marketing officer for Restaurant Brands International (owner of Burger King, Popeyes, and Tim Hortons.)

Many fast-food chains were able to advertise they were not only open but could safely deliver food through the takeout window … and were hiring. That message was well received. The other messaging we wanted to hear? Forthright information about how companies are taking care of their customers and their employees, keeping them safe while they wait on us. We want credible information from sources we trust.

“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,” Mull writes. “Explicit information about safety procedures was also among the top requests.”

Brands, in a way, are filling in the vacuum left at the top of the newsfeed; Mull believes guidance from our government has been “slow, inconsistent, and confusing,” with mixed messages coming from politicians and government agencies alike. So brands are stepping into that breech, viewing this gap as a space in which to engage their audience.

“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,” Mull writes. This may be especially true for Millennials and Gen X, who often have firm opinions around the “right way” to spend one’s money. And this presents a paradox. They don’t necessarily want the ads, but when they get them, they kinda like em if the tone is right.

“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,” Mull explains.

The risk, naturally, is being seen as tone-deaf. We don’t want to hear from execs telling us “we’re all in this together” when we know darn well those execs will not struggle to pay their rent. We don’t want to see Instagram influencers sheltering in place in the Cayman Islands. That’s an extended vacation, not a hardship.

So what do we want?

We want to hear the stories of local breweries who rapidly switched to making hand sanitizer … and we aren’t so much impressed when Budweiser decides later in the game to do the same. We want to hear about brands and wealthy Americans who are donating hard cash to nonprofits that help out kids and those most at risk. We want to know that, in the face of this pandemic, brands are run by people who will do the right thing for other people. We want brands to help us.

“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,” Mull writes. (I believe America fell in love with this woman on sight … and Coors looked like a local hero.)

Advertising during challenging times is important, Mull insists.

“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,” she writes. “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.”

The challenge for brands is getting it right.