Paring Down Production, Brands Pivot on COVID Messaging


The advertising industry was thrown an almost unhittable curveball last spring with the onset of COVID-19. As workplaces and schools closed and major events got cancelled, ad spending ground nearly to a halt. Corporate marketing departments and agencies laid off staff, while brands struggled to find the right tone to strike – or simply quit advertising entirely. For those that remained, messaging quickly turned serious and somber, echoing themes like “we are here for you” or “we’ll get through this together.” It was not a time for lighthearted campaigns or expensive production.

Fast forward five months. Although we remain firmly in the pandemic’s grip, public sentiment has changed and campaigns are changing along with it. Driven by widespread acceptance of working from home and the partial return of major sports – albeit without fans – brands are now pivoting away from their previous messaging and becoming more optimistic, and in some cases even humorous.

Nike’s latest, the third installment of its “You Can’t Stop Us!” campaign, is a tribute to the perseverance of athletes and athletics. It uses side by side editing from over 4,000 hours of existing footage to highlight the common bonds between athletes of all shapes, sizes, races, and abilities. Narrated by US soccer star and LGBTQ activist Megan Rapinoe, it celebrates the return of sports and the people who are making that happen (including hazmat-suited workers in an empty stadium), as well as kneeling pros wearing Black Lives Matter gear.

Bud Light’s “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” spot celebrates the return of sports from a completely different perspective, making light of COVID lockdown activities like YouTube baking and crafting before the sports-starved fans engaging in them break into song over the return of baseball and other sports. Created to launch with the start of the shortened MLB season, the “Take Me Out” has already spawned a spin-off 15-second spot in which a stadium beer vendor walks neighborhood streets hawking Bud Light’s home delivery options.

Perhaps no brand has used humor as successfully as Progressive Insurance, however. Leaning on its team of improv actors, Progressive filmed three “Work from Home” spots and a dozen social videos in just two days, primarily using iPhones. Based on a “it’s funny because it’s true” philosophy, all parody the awkward Zoom meeting hijinks that have become all too familiar to many Americans. The brand has taken this ironic, home-centric approach even further on YouTube, with additional spots for viewing and the eclectic new “Shower Sessions” music series hosted by indie icon, St. Vincent.

The three campaigns share a pared-down production approach along with their “five months in” topical messaging pivot. While Nike’s new spot is a marvel of video editing technology, the footage itself is not new; there was no lavish, on-site shoot involved. Bud Light and Progressive, meanwhile, both bend over backwards to look low-budget, utilizing a quirky, amateurish style to great effect. All are clearly shunning the glitz of previous campaigns in their respective categories. Call it The New Madison Avenue.

So where will we be five months from now? While it’s impossible to say for certain, my guess is that the ad industry, like the country, may never be quite the same.