The Advertising Pandemic Has Passed

The Advertising Pandemic Has Passed
The Advertising Pandemic Has Passed

Advertisements are frequently aspirational. So it’s no surprise that the pandemic has all but vanished this year.

Ads encouraging social distancing from major brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are long gone. There aren’t many places where you can see people dressed in masks inside crowded indoor spaces. There are almost no references to making the most of staying at home.

As television shows such as And Just Like That… and Grey’s Anatomy move away from the pandemic in their plot lines, so does advertising. Following a holiday season in which some brands alluded to Covid in their advertisements, many agencies and their clients are no longer depicting pandemic life, but rather a more optimistic, post-pandemic world.

“In the production part, everyone is wearing a mask all the time, no one touches anyone, and you keep a two-meter distance [from one another]—the protocol is super strict,” said Saulo Rocha, executive creative director and head of art at David Madrid. “However, what’s being shot, what’s on camera, is actually [the] reality that you fantasize about.”

The lack of pandemic advertising contrasts sharply with the flurry of advertisements released in 2020, when major brands such as Audi, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Volkswagen altered their logos to encourage social distancing, and when ads from companies such as Google and Uber honored health care workers and other frontline workers who couldn’t stay at home.

According to Mark Koelfgen, executive creative director and copywriter at David&Goliath, the ads were inspired by a sense of obligation among creatives and brands to educate the public and reflect the realities of the experience.

“You feel a sense of responsibility, in a sense, to not hide things,” said Koelfgen, who oversaw a documentary-style stunt-driver shoot in mid-2020 that featured crew members wearing masks and remaining socially distant on set as creative co-lead for Kia.

Nearly two years later, many marketers believe their obligation to emphasize safety has passed.

“At this point, people have all the information, they’ve made [the decisions] they’re going to make, and those attitudes and beliefs have calcified a little,” Koelfgen explained to Marketing Brew. “At this point, there isn’t much we feel we should do.”

Marketers felt compelled to depict appropriate behavior because advertising is often viewed as a “window to the world,” according to Rocha, who has recently oversaw shoots for brands such as Coca-Cola and the electric-vehicle charger Wallbox. That sentiment has gradually faded, as have depictions of people wearing masks in advertisements.

“We’re getting to the point where people understand that just because they don’t see people wearing masks in an enclosed space in an advertisement doesn’t mean they can go out there and be irresponsible,” Rocha said.

Reminding people of the pandemic’s realities poses another risk: alienating some customers. Some pandemic markers, such as masks and vaccines, have become increasingly divisive for some Americans, particularly in light of the proliferation of Covid misinformation.

“You’ve got masked, no mask, left, right, blue, red,” Rob Lenois, VaynerMedia’s chief creative officer, told Marketing Brew. “We’ve never been more divided.”

As a result, some marketers may be wary of messages that they previously thought were harmless. “You could lose half your audience if you get it wrong,” Lenois said of high-impact moments like the Super Bowl.

Even consumers who aren’t outspoken opponents of masks, vaccines, or Covid restrictions may be turned off by references to the pandemic, according to Frauke Tiemann, executive creative director and art director at David&Goliath and creative co-lead for Kia.

“They know it from their daily lives, and they don’t want to be reminded of it,” Tiemann explained.

Creatives, on the other hand, are putting some constraints on the kinds of dreamy post-pandemic alternate realities they show in advertisements. Part of that calculation is logistical: marketers said that covid protocols are still very much a concern on shoots, which can place natural constraints on the scale of unmasked gatherings depicted.

However, there is an acknowledgement that large unmasked gatherings may raise red flags for some people, which marketers are hesitant to engage with. “When you see a portrayal of something like an indoor concert [where] no one’s wearing masks—I still get a little tense in my chest and think, ‘Oh, they shouldn’t be doing that,'” Koelfgen said.

Covid cases continue to fall across the country, and restrictions are loosening, with the CDC issuing new guidelines last week indicating that 70% of Americans can stop wearing masks and no longer need to socially distance themselves. Every day, it appears that ads this year will look more like pre-pandemic ads.

“I think the creative will loosen up again now that everything is loosening up,” Tiemann said.