Every commercial is a Super Bowl commercial now
The problem with the patriotism sales pitch
The Super Bowl is known for its funny ads, but it's also become an annual showcase of what Fast Company labeled back in 2014 as "the sadvertisement." You know the ones — they're the ads featuring soldiers returning home from war, or the Budweiser Clydesdales paying tribute to 9/11 victims, or Johnny Cash reciting a poem about the ragged old flag, or Clint Eastwood walking down an alley talking about how the recession has affected the auto industry. They're the ads that make you weepy, and proud to be an American. They're the ads that suggest it's practically your patriotic duty to buy a Ram.
These days, turning on the TV amid the coronavirus crisis means watching a bombardment of Super Bowl-ready sadvertisements. There might be no American sports on at all, but advertisers are more eager than ever to manipulate customers by playing to their sense of shared identity. In "these troubled times," Americans are brought together … by Taco Bell, by Walmart, by Uber, by Apple, by Facebook. The ads worryingly conflate our coronavirus response with patriotism, a tactic long proven effective for making a sale but now potentially contributing to our botched response to the outbreak.
Back in 1991, The New York Times observed that "the NFL found that wrapping itself in the flag, or whatever else was politically convenient, doesn't hurt at the box office." Nor does it seem to hurt now, seeing how many brands are positioning themselves as a beacon of light in "these trying times." Of course, instead of a war or a hostage crisis or a terrorist attack, the uniting event is a global pandemic. And as Stephen Colbert aptly summed it up before airing his own cloying sadvertisement parody in 2019, "Super Bowl commercials are not afraid to pull on the nation's heartstrings to move their products." Coronavirus commercials aren't, either.
From a marketing standpoint, it's actually been quite amazing to watch. Within just a few weeks, the advertising industry has managed to pivot all of its campaigns (including a hilariously ill-timed KFC ad involving literal finger licking). Some 92 percent of marketers have tweaked their messaging since mid-March, a survey by the Association of National Advertisers found. And it's working: According to one firm, "recent ads have received high marks" with "the average 'likability' score of ads that mention COVID-19 … 11 percent higher than the industry average, putting the spots in a league with Super Bowl ads in terms of effectiveness," the Los Angeles Times writes.
Perhaps the biggest giveaway of how brands are tying their products to coronavirus-induced patriotism is how so many of these ads aren't obviously selling, well, anything. "They're not doing hard advertising per se," Joseph Kang, a senior project manager at the marketing firm Edelman, told Vanity Fair. "They're just saying, 'Hey, look, we're a brand and we care.'" Part of that is just savvy strategy; people know when they're being hawked something, and it would come across as tasteless to use a pandemic, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands, to sell, say, fried chicken.
The best example might be this Uber ad, which features stirring footage of a diverse cross-section of Americans making the best of quarantine, concluding with the message, "Thank you for not riding with Uber" (meanwhile, on Monday the company slashed 3,000 jobs). Other ads, including one from — of course — the NFL, function more as uplifting PSAs, telling people to practice self-isolation and social distancing. Other ads function on the surface as selfless tributes to essential workers; Walmart, for example, ran an ad featuring the company's CEO telling his employees that they're heroes, while Lowe's encouraged people to make signs thanking health-care workers (presumably using supplies bought in their stores). Lay's, even more broadly, is celebrating "joy givers," while Domino's Pizza wants you to know they're hiring, seeing as you may be out of work.
Television has become saturated with these ads, all using stock phrases like "these uncertain times" and almost never addressing the pandemic directly. This seems to be fitting with the market research; only 10 percent of people "said they wanted marketers to acknowledge the situation or express concern," The Wall Street Journal reports, though 24 percent said they wanted to know "what the advertiser is doing to help during the pandemic." Instead, we're left with vague overtures that aim to tap into our patriotism, to bring us together to buy beer or hamburgers or more beer. The ads are so formulaic at this point that one YouTube user edited together a compilation video about how every COVID-19 ad is the same.
To be fair, it does seem to be an effective strategy if you want to sell something — although in other ways it may be backfiring.
As my colleague Damon Linker has compellingly argued, "the old-fashioned, pig-headed individualism of the American people" is a suicide pact, and "we value personal freedom too highly — and for that we are likely to pay a very steep price over the weeks and months to come." This has been illustrated in the entitled "liberate" protests, the revelry in states that have reopened too soon, and yes, even in the way President Trump has seemingly banked a successful coronavirus campaign on the unimpeded start of the NFL this fall. Stoking patriotism has its costs even under normal circumstances, resulting in the toxic conflation of protests of or within the NFL with... disrespecting the troops? Being a bad American? Now, though, the consequences might be even more dire: brands and products pushing Americans to tap into a shared national identity by encouraging them, however heart-wrenchingly, to resume buying things could, quite literally, result in tens of thousands more dead than necessary.
In the first season finale of Mad Men, Don Draper observes that "there's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash — if they have a sentimental bond with the product." What he's describing, of course, is emotional manipulation. In the service of selling a projector or a car, it might be a harmless enough tactic. But tying up our sense of civic responsibility to consumption in the midst of a pandemic is something else entirely.
After all, implicit in every advertisement is the message of us over them; that's implicit, perhaps, too, in our idea of patriotism. But now is the time to look beyond any one business or brand or even country. Still, turn on your TV, and you'll be all but guaranteed to hear a single, vague, patronizing message of "togetherness" — a corporate reminder that "this too shall pass," and we'll be here for your money when it does.
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