There’s something about the coronavirus that has alienated us from the visual cues of disaster. Locked inside under stay-at-home orders, a pandemic appears oddly routine. It looks like the inside of the refrigerator and the menu of the Roku. Bingeing some reality show from my couch, I begin to forget why I’m stuck here, watching it night after night. Until the commercial break arrives.
It’s jarring how easily the virus has been fused with branding and processed into the optimistic language of advertising. Every crisis begets its own corporate public service announcements — remember the Budweiser Clydesdale tribute to 9/11? — but rarely with such speed and ubiquity. Dozens of TV and online ads have angled to position brands within the pandemic experience, deploying inspirational pop music and gravelly voice-over artists to assure us that in “these unprecedented times” (Buick), that “in times as uncertain as these” (Chick fil A), “we’re all living a new normal” (State Farm), but “even now, some things never change” (Target) because “our spirit is what unites us” (Dodge).
The hallmarks of the coronavirus ad are so consistent they could be generated by bots. They begin with eerie drone footage of empty streets, a shot of a child staring plaintively out the window and then — cue the upbeat musical key change — a medical worker peeling off a mask, a guy jamming on a home piano, maybe a deeply pregnant woman rubbing her belly as if summoning a genie from its bottle. One Coca-Cola commercial, “To the Human Race,” created by a Malaysian advertising agency, elevates