The TV glows differently now than it did. The morning news shows, the midday press briefings, the nightly reports—the pandemic receives nearly constant coverage, coloring practically everything we see. The commercials are no exception. Tune in to any station these days and you’re sure to encounter a barrage of ads featuring stock footage of nurses rushing down corridors, postal workers depositing packages on doorsteps, young kids lifting their chins to squint at some far-off future, raised high like a flag. And so many of these ads open with some variant of the same phrase: “In these uncertain times…”
It’s not surprising that advertisers have begun speaking to our current circumstances—given the devastating toll of the virus and the widespread economic pain that’s come with it, last year’s uptempo sales pitch just won’t resonate like it did. An empathetic approach must seem the best path forward. But do all these ads really need to parrot the same tired phrase? Is this all they know how to say?
The dispiriting answer may actually be “Yes.” With limited time and money to turn out these empathy-flavored ads, brands are sticking to the playbook rather than striving for originality. “Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same,” a supercut made by marketer Sean Haney, splices together clips from various ads to show just how blatantly they mimic one another. Automakers, wireless providers, credit unions: all trot out nearly the same language verbatim. Though some put their own spin on it—“During these uncertain times” or “In times of uncertainty”—the main ingredients rarely vary.
Marketers themselves find this repetition grating, as a recent Wall Street Journal article makes clear. But they apparently can’t stop themselves from joining the chorus. In fact, it’s not just that the phrase is repeated ad nauseum in today’s climate, but that it’s also recycled from past crises; during the Great Recession in 2008, many companies deployed the same wording. (One Hyundai ad from that era deserves special mention for doubling down to the point of tautology: “In these uncertain times, everyone can use a little certainty.”) The challenges faced now are quite different, but that’s not stopping copywriters from effectively cutting and pasting.
Perhaps now is the moment to come clean and admit that I too have put my own “uncertain times” out into the world. During the Great Recession, I was working as a copywriter on behalf of GMAC, the financing arm of General Motors, which needed a rebrand after the auto bailout. The new name had to sound reliable, straightforward, and, above all, empathetic. Our suggestion was Ally Bank, and our pitch was In these uncertain times, everyone needs an ally.
We wrote that line because it seemed necessary that the company appear sensitive to what its customers were going through. That may sound like an obvious idea, but it’s a relatively recent development in the history of American marketing. During the Great Depression, companies recognized that people were hurting, but they adopted a different advertising approach: heightened emphasis on sales promotions and discounted prices, along with rah-rah bromides about American industriousness. They were trying to appease economic anxiety, but didn’t care much for expressing empathy.
Some companies paid a price for not displaying sensitivity to a suffering nation. When photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans sought to capture the defining images of the Depression, they often juxtaposed glossy 1930s billboards with the grittier realities of the era. One such Lange photograph shows two migrant farmers walking a dirt road alongside a Southern Pacific billboard that reads “Next Time Try The Train. Relax” and features an image of a businessman reclining comfortably in his seat. Clearly, the ad isn’t speaking to our two farmers. They can’t afford train tickets, nor can they afford to relax generally. It’s as if Southern Pacific is deliberately mocking them, along with anyone else in their dust-coated shoes.
Over the decades, companies learned their lesson, concluding that it’s important “in uncertain times” to show an awareness of people’s struggles, even on the most cursory level. No agency expects to net a Cannes Lions award for rolling out yet another ad that echoes everyone else’s, but at least they won’t be pilloried for saying the wrong thing. For them, it’s about risk avoidance. Too much empathy and an ad seems blasphemous because, really, what does a company know about problems real people face? Too little, however, is worse, since an apathetic posture (Next Time Try The Train. Relax) is unacceptable. Better to appear fraudulently empathetic than openly heartless.
“Uncertain times” is especially useful for this reason, in that its tone maintains some distance from real-life hardship. Some ads inch toward greater directness, referring to “challenging times” or “difficult times” or “troubled times.” But those phrases are riskier, carrying a sour note, while “uncertain times” is coldly sterile; it leaves no aftertaste. This air of emotional detachment is exactly what renders it the perfect articulation of corporate empathy. It knows nothing about anyone’s actual struggles. It’s simply uncertain, and stops there.
Of course, the goal of these ads isn’t to make people feel better; it’s to sell stuff, or at least maintain a brand presence. And while many customers may be tuning them out, most probably aren’t. As ethically dubious as these empathy ads may be, there are good reasons to believe that advertising during a time of crisis is highly effective, since the cost of withdrawing from the spotlight can be severe. Consumers may not have the cash right now to purchase a new car, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not paying attention; if Ford abruptly goes dark, the public might assume that bankruptcy isn’t far behind. By continuing to advertise, a brand signals its own resilience. It is surviving, just like we are. It is with us all the way.
As the pandemic drags on, brands will inevitably get more innovative with how they articulate this togetherness message, potential pitfalls be damned. But it may not happen anytime soon. Developing a truly original ad campaign, like any artistic undertaking, isn’t something easily rushed; it more typically emerges out of the kind of sustained attention that our present moment makes nearly impossible. Even if clients gave their agencies the green light to be bold, it’s unrealistic to think that creatives are positioned right now to do their best work. After all, they’re not immune from the stresses of this pandemic. They’re living in uncertainty, too.
It’s worth remembering that uncertainty is always a part of our lives—a fact of moving through time, not a measure of it. But it’s also plainly true that some uncertainties weigh on us more heavily, straining us both personally and professionally. Compared to today’s crisis, the economic downturn in 2008 may look mild, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. Not knowing when the next round of layoffs was coming. Not knowing whose jobs were safe, whose desks would be wiped clean before lunch. It was a daily struggle to focus on our work. How could we muster the emotional energy to care about clients like Ally Bank, or their customers? So we made rote gestures of reassurance in the copy we wrote. Whatever real empathy we had, we saved for ourselves.