In Coronavirus Advertising, You’re the Hero

In Coronavirus Advertising, You’re the Hero

Locked inside my apartment under stay-at-home orders, the pandemic begins to look oddly routine. Bingeing some reality TV show, I can begin to forget why I’m stuck here — until the commercial break. “We’re all living a new normal —” “Especially now.” “Even in times as uncertain as these.” It’s jarring how quickly the realities of the coronavirus have been processed into the optimistic language of advertising. Every crisis inspires its own corporate PSAs, but these ones are strangely ubiquitous. The hallmarks of coronavirus ads are so consistent they could be generated by bots. “People.” “People.” “People.” “People.” “People.” “And family.” They’re all collected in this YouTube montage called, “Every Covid-19 Commercial Is Exactly the Same.” “Especially now.” The ads begin with eerie drone footage of empty streets, a shot of a child staring plaintively out the window, some desperate-looking individual, and then — upbeat musical key change. A medical worker peeling off their mask, a guy jamming on his home piano, a deeply pregnant woman rubbing her stomach as if summoning a genie from a bottle. And finally: “We care about keeping you safe.” “We’re here to help.” “We’re still here for you.” “Our spirit is what unites us.” What’s weird is, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to buy. These ads are often strangely devoid of product placement. Instead, they lean on pat metaphors that stuff the crisis into the various receptacles affiliated with the products. There are no Cokes in this Malaysian Coke ad, just the note, “Thank you for filling the glass with kindness and hope.” Dunkin’ talks about raising a cup. And Hefty’s message compares the human spirit to a bag of trash. “Thank you.” Uber even ran an anti-Uber commercial that tells its customers, “Thank you for not riding with Uber.” In the place of images of products, these ads are selling a vision of the workers who made them. They show Fareway employees striding in slo-mo through stockrooms, and masked warehouse workers monitoring Amazon conveyor belts. “To our over one million heroes —” “To all of our Amazon retail heroes, we want to thank you.” “I say thank you.” They’re capitalizing on the trend of anointing all essential workers as heroes. It’s a well-meaning impulse to thank those people who are stocking shelves and bagging groceries, but employers have seized on it as a tactic to soften the uncomfortable truth that their workers are at risk, and ease our own tensions as consumers about benefiting from their work. “So how does it feel when you see an ad that valorizes a grocery store worker as a hero?” “The word, hero, has always implied having some sort of agency. Somebody running into a burning house and saving a baby, they are making a conscious decision. But we weren’t trained for this kind of thing. This wasn’t in our job descriptions. We’re not these altruistic angels that are just so happy to be there, and to serve you. And that’s kind of what they’re trying to show in these ads. It’s wonderful to be acknowledged. It’s when it becomes a catchphrase, it’s when it becomes ingenuine. It’s like memos from corporate like, ‘You guys are heroes,’ you know? It doesn’t mean anything anymore.” These ads have reimagined their ideal consumers too. Medical workers have swiftly been elevated into unwitting corporate spokesmodels, creating a fantasy where all consumption is reframed as a public service performed by heroes for heroes. In the coronavirus ad world, heroes are broadly defined. They’re not just the nurses and grocery stockers. Now every couch surfer can feel like they’re doing their part. Basically anything a person does during the pandemic can be reframed in a commercial as an act of heroism. It’s telling that so many of these ads are constructed from found images of social media, or at least they’re made to appear that way. They locate hope in amateur video of a woman cutting her own bangs and a baby riding a Roomba. It’s as if by some kind of transitive property, drinking the same brand of coffee that I saw a nurse drink means that I’m contributing to the cause. [sirens] I may not be packing meat or intubating patients, but at least I am bravely maintaining my consumption habits. They make me feel like I’m doing my part by staying on my couch.

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