'In These Uncertain Times.' Avoiding the Generic Coronavirus Ad

Four better strategies for your brand right now

We've always been here for you ... and in these uncertain times ... now we are again ... people ... family ... home ... even when we're apart ... we'll get through this together ... at home."

Sound familiar? How about with sad piano music behind it? Yes, I'm talking about the ads we've been seeing in the time of coronavirus, and yes, people have been noticing that they are all the same. 

As a long time skewerer of generic advertising—in 2014 I wrote a piece called "This Is a Generic Brand Video" that pointed out ad tropes that seemed, ahem, similar among brands. It's hard not to notice similar trends happening now. Or—in the case of this YouTube montage of all of the Covid-19 commercials or copywriter Samantha Geloso's "This is a Generic Brand Coronavirus Video" equivalent "Hey, We're a Brand"—to have them really obviously pointed out to us.

So if you're an advertiser or hey, you're a brand and find yourself with a media buy to fill and creative that no longer works, what are you supposed to do, anyway? A close friend who works at an ad agency reached out in desperation last week: "That's it. We can't do any more ads with stock photos. We have to find another way."

And look, it's hard. Even worse than doing something generic is doing something tone deaf, inappropriate or confusing. Add in a rush to put something together and an inability to do live-action shoots, and it's no wonder that a lot of smart, talented people are landing on the same piano-music-filled solution.

So what else can you do? Here are a few other avenues to consider in these irregular, unresolved, up-in-the-air, iffy, dicey, chancey, peaky, curvy, trepidatious, angsty, weird, bizarrely disconcerting times.

Tell specific stories.

The hallmark of generic content is focusing on the general as a way to get out of committing to something specific. As a result, it can come off as a little bit of a cop-out. A stock picture of a nurse with a mask on does not move us the way hearing a real nurse talk about what it's like on the front lines does. Seeing a montage of busy parents reconnecting with toddlers and pets at home is cute, but hearing a BBC sportscaster practice his craft on his two dogs is definitely more memorable. 

The point is, if you can think of situations to slot into a generic spot, why not pick one of those and find a real story or a real, singular voice to highlight? If you can't film the person, capture their audio and set it to design, illustration or type animation—like this simple but direct spot from Old Spice and BET, narrated by Deon Cole. There are a thousand great, moving stories being told right now, from an older couple meeting up for coffee at the border of Germany and Denmark to people getting married in the time of corona.

Pick one. Share it with the world. I guarantee it's better than stock photos and sad piano music.

Can we be funny? 

Lorne Michaels famously came on the SNL stage after 9/11 and asked, "Can we be funny?" It cut the tension because it brought a typically behind-closed-doors sentiment into the spotlight. Well, now everyone's behind closed doors, and we all want a break from anxiety, fear and sad piano music. 

At-home comedians are using their phone cameras to do impressions and riff on our collective consciousness. Gloria Gaynor is washing her hands to "I Will Survive." Stanley Tucci is showing us how to make the perfect negroni. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Max Brooks each put a personal spin on PSAs to stay home and stay six feet apart respectively. A few on-point examples: Coors Light's "Who Could Use a Beer?" campaign uses stock photos, yes, but of a historical and revolutionary kind to drive home a clever message, no live action footage necessary. Freeform put a clever spin on its name with a "StaytheFFHome" campaign that happened to highlight their content without reaching for the Kleenex. 

The point is, most of us aren't sitting at home, gazing out of the window at the rain, and dramatically dabbing our eyes with a handkerchief while lamenting "O, these uncertain times!" Most of us are bored, restless and just trying to make it through another week of lockdown while being responsible human beings.

Be actually helpful. 

Public service announcements and/or infographics have always been a source of memorable copywriting and graphic design. Imagine Gov. Cuomo's PowerPoints, but with a more beautiful, elegant or interesting presentation of the facts: Stand six feet apart, wear a mask in public, flatten the curve, don't drink bleach. Some of the generic brand videos I've seen are technically trying to do this—the "We're at War" spot featuring the voice of Matthew McConaughey comes to mind—but aggressively telling people to stay home set to stock imagery gets real old real quick. 

And you don't need to knock people over the head by featuring your products or changing your logo: Take a page from Frito-Lay and take the time of the ad to spell out clearly what you're doing to help. Reach out to trusted design and animation partners with a brief to visually put a memorable spin on your message or just the facts.

Remix branded content. 

OK, so everyone is stuck at home, ready to watch pretty much anything and everything. I binge-watched a Lowe's home renovation YouTube series the other day, something I would probably never do in non-Covid times. But it was good! Hi, Lowe's. Good job! I repurposed old cabinets! 

If you're a brand, why not use this time to develop some interesting, useful or entertaining branded content? It doesn't have to be overtly connected to the outbreak, or even mention it; just help people stay occupied and sane at home. Liquor brand? Collect bartenders' best stories and animate them (would be nice to give bartenders some love right now, too). If you're speaking to parents, illustrate some step-by-step cooped-up-kid craft tutorials. For inspiration on short-form content formats, take a spin through the recently launched Quibi—they pretty much covered every entertainment form imaginable in 10 minutes or less. Or take a page from John Krasinkski, who managed to make a whole handmade show, charmingly called "Some Good News," and amplify what's actually keeping us in it together.

No matter what you do (or don't do), it can never hurt to put any creative idea through the generic Bechdel test: 1) Avoid stock photography 2) and sad piano music 3) unless you're trying to be funny.

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Kendra Eash
Kendra Eash is partner and creative director at And/Or, a design and production studio based in Brooklyn known for bold, clever branded content, motion design, and animation.

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