Pandemic Advertising Got Weird Fast

A few weeks ago, as millions of Americans settled into home confinement in a desperate effort to stymie an era-defining pandemic, Little Caesars invited them to step up to its Pizza Portal, a virus-hostile pie locker that circumvents the need for human interaction. Little Caesars was not the only brand—or, for that matter, the only pizza company—that wanted people to know their lockdown options. Commercials by Domino’s and Papa John’s reminded viewers that the heat of pizza ovens annihilates germs. Others had different ideas: Become a Burger King Couch Potatriot with a socially distant burger delivery. Buy a face mask from Forever 21 and it will donate a mask to a person in need. Take up to 25 percent off kitchen-organizing essentials at the Container Store. Buy a whole Hyundai on the internet.
Even in a culture numbed to viral stunt marketing, these abrupt pivots to the pandemic in television commercials, social-media posts, and marketing emails have been hard to ignore. It’s jarring to see advertisers, usually so optimistic about their products as a means to improve lives or grant happiness, forced to acknowledge that things in America are broadly terrible. Some viewers have noted an unsettlingly similar solemnity across brands’ pledges to protect and serve their clientele. Others have found comfort in the commercials’ shoddy earnestness; if America’s salespeople have no choice but to share in everyone’s uncertainty, then maybe the country is mostly united after all.
Together, these ads reveal a pandemic dystopia with a particularly American twist. With unpredictable government-aid coffers, most companies that want to remain solvent through an extended catastrophe will have to master the precarious, high-stakes art of disastertising. To do it, they’ll need to persuade you that giving them your money is an act of solidarity.
[ Read: Don’t spit! Pandemic posters through the years ]
By most accounts, the coronavirus catastrophe became real to advertisers around the same time it did for lots of Americans: when the NBA suspended its season. “That’s when we were like, ‘Oh, this is going to be big, and it’s going to change consumer behavior and affect people’s lives for real,’” says Fernando Machado, the chief marketing officer for Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King, Popeyes, and Tim Hortons. The company shut down all its offices in the country and threw out its existing advertising plans. Its new ads spotlight low-contact payment and the plan to scoot bags of food out the drive-through window on a tray. If the company’s restaurants were going to pay employees and order supplies, it wanted people to know they could still come buy food.
At Domino’s, the situation was similar, according to Kate Trumbull, a vice president of advertising at the company. The pizza giant scrapped an ad campaign that showed customers standing close to one another, rolled out information about its...