The coronavirus changed the world so quickly that what was normal yesterday seems surreal today.
In TV commercials made not long ago and still on the air, people crowd into bars, or hug, or eat from salad bars in restaurants. Looking like reckless relics of some past age of dangerous Know Nothingism, the actors engage in what now are outlaw behaviors, conducted in horrifying proximity.
For Facebook, Sylvester Stallone and Chris Rock clown around on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with hundreds of extras packed shoulder to shoulder, no hand sanitizer in sight.
For Sandals Resorts, unmasked, ungloved men and women cavort carefree on a beach, oblivious to the advancing menace.
Even in a commercial for Cooper University Health Care in Camden, doctors shake hands with patients in imprudent gestures of good will.
Newer commercials strive to reflect how we are currently living with threat, like Burger King offering delivery with limited contact. But many prior ads were already paid for, experts say. So, we watch them unspool in a mix of discomfort and fascination.
For Amy Steinberg, 60, of Wynnewood, a married mother of three adult children, travel ads especially spin her head. “Oh, my God,” she says to herself as she sees a commercial for Beaches Resorts showing tourists dancing in the Caribbean. “Why are they airing that? That bothers me a lot. At night, it’s Netflix for me now, and no commercials.”
Seeing commercials that do not depict social distancing is like watching TV ads from the 1950s, said Michelle Amazeen, a professor of mass communication, advertising, and public relations at Boston University College of Communication. In them, wives are “the little woman,” vacuuming in heels, or smoking, and always kowtowing to men. "Over time, society changed and that way of portraying the world is no longer acceptable.
“But in this case, the world changed in a matter of days.”
We are not the same audience today as we were when actor Dennis Quaid started flying coach in a packed plane for Esurance; AT&T shills began playing endless rounds of bingo; 5-Hour Energy guys first sweated and rebounded on a basketball court, or vacationers took to a crowded pool, then ate together in an ad for the Poconos.
“Humans are psychologically designed to avoid danger, especially when there’s been messaging warning against contact with each other,” said Kit Yarrow, consumer psychology professor emerita at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.
“When we watch commercials, we are having visceral reactions to a threat. We are in a vigilant mode.”
Traditionally, advertisers work to construct on-screen worlds that audiences would like to be in, said Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Americans think fun is being with people,” said Turow, who studies marketing, digital media, and society. “Those commercials now reflect a world that passed so fast. Hugging looks so strange now."
Commercials, Turow continued, are 15- to 30-second short stories. Currently, the tales about beer seem especially fraught, since not many alcohol commercials depict people drinking alone.
The crisis is in the crowd.
“Networks and companies decided to let most of the beer ads still run,” said Cynthia Meyers, a historian of advertising and a communications professor at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx.
“But the executives are probably frantically reevaluating. They could not have anticipated the weird feeling that comes from watching people together in bars. Social media keeps commenting on it."
Various advertising agencies did not respond to requests for comment.
Molson Coors scrapped an ad made before COVID-19 that had dubbed Coors Light beer the “Official Beer of Working Remotely.” The company believed viewers might associate the brand with people who self-quarantine, according to the Motley Fool, a financial and investing advice company in Alexandria, Va.
One special problem may exist for the manufacturers of America’s third-most popular beer, Corona (behind Guinness and Heineken), Meyers added, “although it’s hard to say if it’s damaging.” Shares of Constellation Brands Inc., which makes Corona, were reportedly down, and rumors swirled that consumers were shunning the product because of its name.
In a statement, however, Constellation rebutted the bad press: “We’ve seen no impact to our people, facilities or operations and our business continues to perform very well.”
Turow said the brand should just embrace the new reality. “I can see somebody in an ad saying, ‘What the heck, have a Corona.' It’s a badge of honor.”
It’s not the first time a product’s name was linked to disease. An appetite-suppression candy was doing quite well into the 1980s until the AIDS epidemic began. “The candy just disappeared after that,” Meyers said.
The name of the diet product? Ayds, pronounced “aids.”
As costly as it can be to pull ads, a few companies have done it. According to a CNBC report, KFC pulled a commercial showing people licking their fingers.
“Let us take care of you”
More and more, TV viewers are seeing a new kind of commercial that references — without being specific — the crisis America faces.
Burger King intones, “Let us take care of you. We minimize contact during the delivery process.”
Lincoln tells us, “More than ever, home is your sanctuary,” as the car company promises to drive a loaner to your house when your vehicle needs servicing.
Local car company Gary Barbera airs a local commercial that advises, “Stay home and let Gary Barbera bring the store to your door.”
Companies "deserve kudos for quickly going in and changing their creative” work, said Amazeen of Boston University. “If you’re a brand, you should be doing that, like the Ford commercials that now say, if you lose your job, you won’t have to pay for six months.”
This is a rare time for business to actually look heroic by appearing to care about customers during a crisis, noted Yarrow of Golden Gate University.
“But the ads can’t be self-serving,” she said. “When times are tough, we are more emotional than usual, and nothing resonates more with us than stories of human caring and dignity and positiveness. So, if a company reconfigures assembly lines to make hand sanitizer, that doesn’t feel opportunistic. That feels like caring.”
Still, warned Meyers, the advertising historian, never forget that advertisers want you to like them. That’s why you’ll see them being quite cautious nowadays, she said.
“Remember,” Meyers added, “some in the viewing audience think the coronavirus is either hyped or a hoax. Advertisers are now working to figure out how to address that — how to alienate the fewest people.”
That’s one reason why few will actually say the word “coronavirus” in a commercial, she said. Another explanation, of course, is that no company wants to link the disease and its brand in the same TV spot.
So, you’ll hear a lot of soothing voice-overs that tell you something like, “In these difficult times, we all have to stay safe,” Meyers said.
The changeover from crowded Olive Garden commercials to ones with wide-open spaces and few people except nuclear families is becoming increasingly noticeable, said Dom Episcopo, 53, a commercial photographer from Fishtown who’s married and has a 10-year-old son.
“It’s impressive how many ads turned around so quickly,” he said. "The ads before the virus seem dated and tone-deaf now.
“That’s because this is a very different normal for us. This change is real.”