The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Every pandemic-themed TV commercial is an empty advertisement for advertising

To watch commercials during the pandemic is to stare into the void. (iStockphoto)

We open on footage of the world just after dawn. A quiet house, an empty diner, a wood-paneled barbershop, the lights flickering on in one place after the other. “This is our commencement,” says the actor Viola Davis, her voice quaking slightly in the cultivated way of a valedictorian reaching for inspiration. She goes on for almost a minute as the music warbles and swells. “We just have to remember how patient we were, how strong we can be,” she tells us, a statement that might apply as much to our curiosity about what we’re watching as it does to the world beyond our walls. Only at the 57-second mark do we learn why we’re here. For a moment, the Bank of America logo appears on screen. Then the next ad begins.

When we watch television in my house, we make a game of trying to guess what each coronavirus-inspired commercial is promoting. We almost never succeed, even when we’ve seen the advertisement before. One that seems to play nightly begins with a series of physicians and first responders, some masked and smiling with their eyes, others merely staring into the camera. “They are the heroes, the helpers — working on the front lines,” the narrator begins. “And here’s one small way that you can help them in return.” With each new airing, time seems to pause for me here. I lean toward the television, trying to remember what this one wants from me: Am I supposed to buy a Buick? Order a pizza? Remember the Alamo? No, I simply need to participate in the 2020 Census.

Earlier in the pandemic, when companies were first scrabbling to adjust their strategies, the common wisdom held that all coronavirus commercials were the same, each borrowing from and barely remixing an almost identical set of music cues, cliches and, sometimes, b-roll footage. As our collective understanding of “these uncertain times” has grown more certain, the television spots have begun to differentiate themselves from one another, enabling Justin Peters to lay out a typology of 13 different kinds for Slate. But if one thing remains constant about these advertisements, it is their coyness — the vague sense that advertisers are slightly embarrassed to be advertising at all, that they barely want their names associated with the expensive airtime they’re paying for. As Amanda Hess put it in the New York Times, “Often missing from these ads are the products themselves.”

Coronavirus has the advertising industry scrambling to turn spots that offer reassurance and help. It means touting contactless delivery and thanking workers. (Video: The Washington Post)

To watch commercials during the pandemic is therefore to be exposed to an almost familiar emptiness. The covid commercial lays bare the undifferentiated ideology of the market: Every commodity whispers to you of family, freedom and hope more than it ever speaks of itself. And those feelings return us always to the same essential obligations, the imperative to purchase and participate, most of all. A Coke is love, and so is a Keurig machine, for some reason. Whichever one you buy, you’ll get what you need, which was never just a way to quench your thirst or a shot of caffeine.

None of this seems original anymore, which makes sense, really, given that every day feels much the same now. Las Vegas may be mostly shuttered, as one ubiquitous spot reminds us, but watching several coronavirus commercials in succession is like losing yourself in a casino, a space where the absence of daylight colludes with the uncanny curvature of architecture to deny you any sense of time passing. You are here because you have always been here, always the perfect viewer, ever the potential consumer. You do not parse the words the narrator speaks, only the tone in which he (it is almost always a man) speaks them: stentorian and reassuring, but ever-so-slightly sad. You do not see the images so much as you see yourself in them, the way you might catch a glimpse of your shadow-soaked face in the opaque window of a shuttered store as you walk by.

Whether they’re celebrating the human spirit or simply offering us a bargain, these commercials are alike in their refusal to acknowledge with any specificity why things are so strange. They mention our separation, but not what we risk if we violate it; the broad fact of illness, but not those who have fallen ill; our “heartbreak,” but never the reality of death. We understand why, of course: Commercials cannot dwell on the negative, lest their products absorb that negativity. Simultaneously, they cannot fully avoid what is so plainly happening, lest they seem out of touch, irrelevant. But their obligation to talk about the crisis without really confronting it leaves them in a paradoxical position: The coronavirus as seen through the lens of the covid commercial is essentially unreal, which means these advertisements can never capture the thing they are ostentatiously chasing down. The commodities they sell thereby assume a fleeting, phantasmagoric aspect, like shapes seen in the clouds on a day when the wind runs high and fast.

Of course, commercials — successful ones, anyway — always deal in illusions. Noting the lacuna at the heart of the covid commercial, Jane Borden writes in Vanity Fair, “The nothing they’re selling right now is as real to us as the difference between Coke and Pepsi — two products that are basically the same, but nevertheless have their own staunchly loyal customers.” This is the way things are supposed to work: Like stage magicians, advertisers show us an empty space, one that shares its airy contours with the lack we call desire. Then, with a flourish, they reveal that that space was already filled, if not by some product, then at least by the feelings it might elicit. Coke can’t convince us that it is better than Pepsi, but it can remind us of what it’s like to lounge companionably in the sun with friends we haven’t seen in months.

The coronavirus has made the waking world into a dreamscape

And yet the pandemic turns this trick on its head, like a magician’s assistant sawing her boss in half. The void the coronavirus generates is too capacious to fill, making the largest brands feel small by comparison. And the sentiments it suggests are all ready-made, such that advertisers can only repeat them, which leaves us with that tedious array of cliches. Under the aegis of the coronavirus, Coke can no more separate itself from Keurig than it can from Pepsi, because none of them can show us how to feel any other way than we already do, despair running into boredom running into frustration running into hope, as if someone had pressed every button on the soda dispenser simultaneously.

When they do find something else to offer — as Facebook does in a spot narrated by a 100-year-old woman, “born during a quarantine” — they still come across as marginal and possibly irrelevant. It’s a sweet story that the centenarian tells, but it only incidentally has anything to do with the social media site, even when the ad ends by directing new parents to a Facebook page of resources. I suppose it’s designed to help you imagine a similarly long life for your own children, one in which Facebook will, presumably, play a literally supporting role. Watching it, though, I instead find myself wondering how the company protected its ancient, vulnerable narrator’s safety. Mostly, the effect is to make illness seem all-encompassing, maybe unavoidable, effectively dwarfing the world’s sixth-most-valuable corporation by comparison.

So totally do these advertisements erase their advertisers that they ultimately seem to be marketing the one thing we least want to buy: the coronavirus itself. But if individual coronavirus commercials make sickness seem inescapable, in the aggregate, they tell a different story. Watched together, they’re just advertisements for advertising. This is, perhaps, the only consolation they offer — not the likely eventuality that this crisis will pass, but the promise that the system chugs on even now. Illness may be inevitable, but so, too, is the economic order it only seems to disrupt, an order that is, after all, the only thing large enough to fill the near-bottomless depression that each ad tentatively plumbs. This is the secret of their dutiful sameness and dreary vacuity. They can sell us only on the idea that things will always be sold, whether or not anyone is left to buy them.

Twitter: @jacob_brogan

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