Some Companies Clearly Don't Know How to Advertise During a Pandemic

Companies are trying to navigate advertising in the time of coronavirus, and some companies are missing the mark by a lot.

Robin Zlotnick - Author

May 1 2020, Updated 2:33 p.m. ET

In probably the least surprising news ever, some brands are having problems responsibly navigating their advertising during the coronavirus pandemic. Many companies have come under fire for their tone-deaf and cringeworthy ads that miss the sensitivity mark.

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I do not envy advertisers right now. It's an impossible task to advertise products during a global health crisis when people's minds are focused on things that actually matter. It's not easy to convince someone to, for example, buy a new car while the structures of capitalism are crumbling all around them. Still, there's a line, and some brands don't seem to recognize that. 

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Ads like this one, for Birddogs gym shorts, are shockingly insensitive and inappropriate. "Who cares that the world seems like it's ending? Who cares that hundreds of thousands of people all over the world have lost their lives to a novel virus that doctors and researchers are racing to understand? These shorts have, like, four pockets."

Read the room, dudes! Real people's lives are ending. Everyone's realities have transformed. It's not OK to make light of the "end" of the world when it feels to so many like their own, personal worlds are actually ending.

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Back in January, a bar in New Zealand was criticized for advertising $6.50 Corona beers "while the pandemic lasts." "Let's be honest, there are worse things you can catch in Hamilton," the ad read. The bar faced serious backlash, and the post was taken down. 

That was in January. We are months further into this thing, and the news gets exponentially worse every day. There's no excuse. 

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And yet, Instagram is practically filled to the brim with influencers and companies trying to capitalize off the pandemic or, in the case of Teen Mom star Farrah Abraham, not really understanding that high schoolers aren't having proms this year. 

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Her prom dress giveaway is wrong in....all? of the ways? All of them? I am near speechless. First, she wants to give her prom dress away to someone who has kept her virginity this year, which is so strange. It's shame-y and bizarre, and I hate it. Not to mention, how does she mean to prove that the winner is telling the truth?! I digress.

In the video, she mentions that COVID-19 probably means there are fewer teen pregnancies, which means she is aware of the pandemic, but she's still posting this giveaway as if she thinks high school students are still going to prom. It's just all so baffling. 

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Television ads these days have also begun to address the pandemic, and they seem to be doing it in a very specific way. Frito-Lay recently released a very somber one-minute-long add claiming that "it's about people," not brands, while enumerating every good deed their brand has done in the past few months. 

The ad literally reads, "The world doesn't need brands to tell us how to think or feel," while simple, emotional piano music plays in the background. Then it starts listing all the wonderful things Frito-Lay has done — creating jobs, donating money, providing meals for those who need them. 

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It's certainly an effort to make it less about selling its products and more about being there for its customers, but at the end of the day, you know this video is about selling more potato chips, and that's the rough thing about it. 

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It's obviously good that companies are using their massive resources to help those in need right now, but it's hard to send a human message when you're a brand and not a human. 

"COVID-19 commercials" has already become a genre unto itself. The deftly edited video below illustrates how similarly self-serious and emotional ads are these days, whether they're for phones, cars, or insurance. They're all the same, and they're all transparently self-serving.

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It's hard because self-service is exactly the point of advertising. But there's just something so gross about a company essentially pretending to be an individual who cares about you when everyone knows their ultimate goal is to sell you cable, or whatever.

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The solution is not to couch your normal ads in somber language about "uncertain times." Clearly, the right thing to do is to let an actual individual be the voice of your company, an individual with a nuanced voice that acknowledges the irony of what they're doing and encourages people to inform themselves and think critically at this time. 

What I'm saying is that every brand should follow Steak-umm's lead. Obviously.

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