A new kind of television advertisement has crept into our collective consciousness here in the age of virus. In an effort to show that they care, and you know, sell stuff, major corporations are inundating the airwaves with saccharine-sweet, super-sincere TV spots that are not a little bit dystopian. Indeed, the virus, it seems, is inescapable even when we cut to a few words from our sponsors.
You’ve all seen them. They include phrases like, “In this time, more than any other,” or “As we all rise to the challenge,” or “Stay safe, stay home.” The last one is particularly infuriating. I mean, I am home! I’m watching freakin television! Where do you think I am, a sports bar? I’m just trying to tune out watching “Friends” over here.
In a Dunkin Donuts ad, employees in one store are making masks. An AT&T ad like dozens of others is a for-profit celebration of frontline responders. There is ad after ad after ad of cozy indoor shots of parents teaching kids, people cooking, virtual happy hours, all of it.
And they aren’t even honest. A lot of families are at each other’s throats. What there should probably be is more Peloton divorce ads about couples who now hate each other, or some single guy sadly taping together used pizza boxes for the recycling.
It is honestly enough to make me long lovingly for the days “Mike Bloomberg for president” ads were more prevalent than grains of sand on the beach. Remember that? It was about 14 years ago, I think. But annoying as they were, those ads weren’t as cloying and Orwellian as the 30-second spots reinforcing lockdown orders while selling products.
We all know already about the shutdown. It’s not a public service to constantly remind us that we have barely left our houses for two months. One of the big reasons people watch TV is to escape this weird reality for a few hours, to settle into the world as it was, not as it is. But the next thing you know it’s back to hospital rooms and facemasks on the screen, stirring music swelling beneath. Just stop.
You know what I want from TV ads right now? I want pretty people with good, strong teeth pushing products that can dramatically improve my life. I want jokes, and celebrity cameos, contests and yelling. I want some affirmation that someday life will be back to normal, not constant reminders of the current drudgery.
A great danger in a long-term slow-motion crisis is that a narrative can start to set in across the culture. Increasingly. that is reinforcing a victim narrative. After all, there is little some Americans crave more than the mantle of victimhood. It is a message of powerlessness in which all we can do is heat up a can of baked beans and wait for the dictatorship of expertise to give us the all-clear.
Television ads play an outsized role in crafting that narrative. This is in part because TV viewership among Americans is so fragmented that we don’t watch the same news, or the same shows, but we do watch the same ads. It is one of the few forms of television that can still saturate society. Please saturate it with something other than shilling while putting on a coronavirus pageant.
There is a danger of wallowing. Yes, our lives have temporarily changed, but no, coronavirus need not be at the center of our every waking moment. In fact, if we let it be, we will all slowly go insane. So please, big companies and advertising companies, just cut us a break. Let us think about something else. I’ll buy it, whatever it is. I promise.