As historians look back on 2020, the feature that has had the greatest impact and will shape generations to come is a novel coronavirus called COVID-19. One of the more interesting things about advertising is that though it tends to be reflexive and respond to market trends, it occasionally gets bold and becomes prescriptive. It doesn’t use focus group data to assemble a meticulous message intended to perfectly appeal to targeted demographics. No, when advertising is truly great it harnesses the minds available to it and tries to help people make sense where none exists. This is almost always in response to tragedy. It is an attempt to get on the right side of history, to be a helper in a hard time, to teach, to give people a language to navigate new territory. 

The ads that have impressed me the most in 2020 have been the ones that did just that. It’s a strange time for everyone and advertisers are taking big swings and bigger risks. Many of them are landing beautifully on their feet in doing so. Five ads stick out to me and they represent how we felt when we were just learning about the adversary COVID-19, how we felt when we got our feet back under us a bit, how we felt when it kept going on and on and on and we made the best of it, how we educated ourselves, and when we learned to laugh about it all.

A Powerful Message from the Motor City

Doner’s Detroit office produced a video titled “When The Motor Stops.” It’s a gorgeous black and white exploration of the emptiness that seems so odd in our urban centers during the Coronavirus. Detroit is no stranger to adversity. The recession of the mid-2000’s hit the area harder than almost anywhere in the United States. The city is a shell of its former self from the downturn in manufacturing in the rust belt over the past 40 years. So, it’s no surprise that Detroit had our first great ad of the Corona era. They are familiar with adversity and how to respond to it. And though it “feels unnatural to not be in motion,” Detroit has a message for us: staying home is fighting. Backing out is winning. Not taking part is moving us forward. Doing less is doing more. Being apart is the only way to take care of each other. It’s a beautifully written and constructed short-film/ad that hits at the heart of what we needed to hear in the early days of COVID-19. 

With that lesson in hand, we did the right thing. We flattened the curve, and the more we learned we quickly realized that this would not be a quick process. When it’s time to find resolve Nike is always there to lend a hand. Think of that classic slogan “Just Do It.” It is ‘resolve’ defined in three clean, short words. The Nike ad I am referring to is the ‘You Can’t Stop Us’ ad. Not only should you watch it for its meticulous and brilliant editing, watch it for a message of hope. The first sentence of the ad is the entirety of the ad summed up; “We’re never alone.” And as it shows a panoply of athletes of all levels from around the globe seamlessly weaving into one another, transitioning action smoothly between a variety of cultures, genders, and identities, it reminds us we are all one, facing the same threat… together.  

Looking Within (Our Own Homes) For Inspiration

We had met our adversary, steeled our nerves and found our rallying cry against it. What was left to do? We needed to learn what to do with ourselves during this unconventional battle. A war of attrition asks you not to fight but to sit and wait. And that is exactly the kind of war we are in with this disease. Coca-Cola released an ad called “The Great Meal.” We needed to know where to focus our vast amounts of time and energy when the world started closing. The answer was always home. Our closest family members. Our roommates. The ones we are isolating with. Coke reminded us we’ve been busy for a long time, that we haven’t had time in a long time. Now was the time to slow down, cook together, break bread together, be together, be mindful and present to one another in your home. It was a beautiful guide to the next “however long this takes.”  

Learning As We Go

Then something miraculous happened. We learned about the virus. After months of isolating in our homes, scientists had compiled enough data to teach us techniques for how to protect ourselves. We were learning how we might go back out into the world surrounded by this invisible foe and survive. We were learning how to be responsible for ourselves and one another. The English Department of Health and Social Care masterfully summarized and illustrated the most important knowledge of how to do this with their Hands, Face, Space public service announcement. In this ad we see Britons showing the proper ways to protect their community from COVID-19 in a simple yet lyrical fashion with the mantra “hands, face, and space”. Just by doing three simple things, we could suppress this virus and move toward a sense of normalcy again. 

Pants are No Longer Optional

When you look back at the early days of the pandemic they were filled with uncertainty and an anxiety that was palpable. Ads reflected that in the beginning. But as we moved along this journey of discovery and illumination, we found our ability to have a sense of humor about the situation. Just when we needed levity the most, Snickers released a commercial that perfectly summarized the awkwardness of our new normal. The commercial depicts the first time a couple has friends over to the house in person. Only the husband didn’t quite get the message. When life gets difficult on a grand scale, our senses of humor initially get suppressed. So it is nice when we see it return and bring us a much needed laugh. 

As we move forward into an unknown future, I hope that our advertising can continue to be brave and prescriptive. I hope that companies and advertising firms found a new kind of fulfillment in taking risks to walk through tough times with society. We need every outlet we can find calling on our better angels to maintain positivity and strength in trying times. When advertising does that, I like it the most. 

Andy Wiggins

Article Written By:

Andy Wiggins

Content Strategist/Champion of All Things Star Wars