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The Unbearable Sameness of Advertising

It’s easy to criticize the hackiness of coronavirus-related ads that have been circulating over the past couple months. They all use the same headlines. The cadence in the tv spots is the same. The feeling, the tone, the reassurance that <the brand> is here for us and cares. It’s gross.

But there’s a reason so many big brands churned out the same ad at the same time, and it really has nothing to do with COVID-19.

First, these ads (at least the earliest & most egregious examples) were made quickly and simultaneously. And as everyone was experiencing the same stark change in reality at the same time, people also came up with the same ideas at the same time without knowing it. That’s understandable. But there’s more to it than that.

Out of fear, haste and ignorance, those loveable artistic sell-outs we call “creatives” threw their heads back and downed a big ol’ cup of the most rotten, curdled advertising tropes with a coronavirusy film on top.

If that sounds disgusting, I totally agree.

In other words, when facing fearful client pressure to “pivot” quickly, they fell back on what they knew. On what was safe.

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“We’ve got to stay top of mind with our customer base, but we can’t sound tone deaf and also we’re extremely afraid of Facebook comments! “ — Clients

The truth is, this style of advertising we’re hating on has been rolling around in the back of creative minds-gone-soft for a long time now. The slow music. The soft VO. Then, the music picks up! Are those drums? Vignettes of peoples’ faces. Vague narration about how the brand is for <this type of person> and for <this type of person> and yes, even <this type of person>. Music crescendo. It’s a brand that is every thing to every one!

Blah blah blah.

And “blah” is the only way to describe these “Anthem”-style ads. The messaging is virtuous but vague. The ads are inclusive enough to avoid criticism, but so non-specific that they speak to no one. The pretty montaged images leave your mind as soon as they leave your eyes. They are forgettable because they say nothing. They do nothing. They are nothing.

They are an indescribable product born of fear. They are the “Live, Laugh, Love” of ads. They fill up our time with dull platitudes, because they’re too afraid to come out with a great idea. They’re a patronizing pat on the head. They think we are stupid.

As such are the coronavirus ads of 2020. They astonish with their sameness and their blah-ness. They annoy with their craven insincerity and pandering. But they are following a formula. It’s just more obvious now, when we see them all laid out, side by side.

And in their lack of creativity, these ads did the opposite of what we needed or wanted to see while going through a pandemic. They bored us.

But let’s be honest with ourselves. The reason we’re able to sit on our high horses of ad-knowing, could be that we didn’t have the opportunity to create any prime-time, highly visible tv spots for big brands in the midst of panic-pivoting. Most of us are holding popcorn from the sidelines.

If it had been us, would we have done the same?

It’s worth thinking about. And while we criticize and laugh at them, while we share snarky articles on Slack about how shitty they are — I hope we internalize it a bit.

They are the “Live, Laugh, Love” of ads. They fill up our time with dull platitudes, because they’re too afraid to come out with a great idea.

I don’t think we hate “Now More than Ever” and “We’re All in this Together” only because they’re unoriginal and repetitive. I think we know on a deep level that this has gotten too far away from selling products and services. Sure, advertising may always be infused with some bullshit, but this—even for us, The Bullshitters—is too much bullshit.

Do we really believe as advertising professionals (and just… as humans) that Fritos ads should be somber video montages assailing us with their moral virtue? You’re a corn chip. Be a corn chip. People love corn chips. You ever dipped a corn chip in refried beans? Delicious. Do I even need to mention a Frito pie?! Or at least if Fritos wanted to be preachy, be a corn chip preacher that delivers a corn chip sermon that convinces all the other corn chips to follow him by getting into the bag. I’m just spitballing here.

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“And the Dip said unto thee, ‘Take shelter in your crinkled abode, and ye shall be rewarded when thouest emerge unto Me.” — A Corn Chip Preacher, probably

I believe we have a great chance now (more than ever!) to take an exhausted public, who’s wary and tired of advertising, and surprise them with smart, joyful, fun work. The field is wide open, just waiting for a new wave of creative fearlessness.

We just have to remind ourselves, and any potential nay-sayers, this:

Advertising is an interruption. And if we are going to interrupt people, we owe them more than what this industry is giving. If brands aren’t offering advertising that entertains, intrigues or sparks wonder, what right do they have to invade people’s lives? I’d say, not much — especially in these uncertain times.