The Worst Ad of the Pandemic Goes To….

In challenging times like these, it’s easy to repeat the same one-liners over and over. Most COVID-19 ads are eerily similar, but if you want to watch all of them at once, look no further than the worst ad of the pandemic. 

Now more than ever, brands are rolling out lines like, “now more than ever”. Constantly. Over the past three months, companies of all sizes had to pull the plug on their regularly-scheduled programming and scramble to say something different. Many ads that ran in January would simply have been nakedly out of place by mid-February or early March. Ads like this one for Tostitos Scoops would have been embarrassingly tone-deaf and insensitive. 

What marketers scrambled to produce came out in just days or weeks, and it’s no surprise that many spots on TV, the internet, and radio looked similar, even identical. Everyone thanked our frontline workers, advocated for staying safe and staying home, and offered the warm, violin-in-the-background content that was, to be fair, more than appropriate for the time. 

Now, advertisers are slowly shifting gears to find a new medium between normal commercials and safe messaging. They’re poking fun of having to stay home, rather than encouraging it. They’re touting new ways to shop online, take advantage of new delivery options, and helping inform customers of what comes next. 

Maybe that’s why Bank of America’s spot seems particularly stale and serves as a good lesson to advertisers that everything has a shelf life. Billed as “America’s Commencement”, it’s a 90-second ad consisting of one-liners that would embarrass a yoga influencer on Instagram. The message is that there is no message; what should inspire turns stomachs after just seconds. 

The footage is of a beaten, worn America that would have served equally well as the music video to John Mellencamp’s Small Town song in 1992. When you’ve got nothing, you try everything, and the result is the media equivalent of throwing pasta on the wall to see what sticks in the minds of viewers. 

Maybe the most elemental shortcoming of the video is that, by lacking the boldness to offer specificity, it fails to offer inspiration. By talking around the issues of the pandemic, of the economic fallout, and the widespread protests, it avoids anything tangible or concrete. How is it brave to overcome challenges if your ad is too afraid to really name them?

Out of an abundance of caution, many advertisers are playing it safe right now. Their messages are focused less on sales and more on emotions. Maybe that’s a good thing. But there’s something refreshingly honest and normal about seeing Glade sell me a plug-in because my bathroom stinks. That might just be the better way to communicate…in times like these.