How do you capture a year like 2020? Fortunately this is a problem that our best minds were hard at work trying to answer — the people, that is, who write and produce television commercials. Marketers are always compressing the sweep of world events into 30- and 60-second story capsules, which is about all the attention span most of us were capable of during this stressful year.
Here are ten commercials that captured the ways in which Americans responded to the flood of crazy that just kept coming in 2020:
This clever marketing campaign by DoorDash wrapped its arms around thousands of small restaurants that were suddenly dependent on home delivery for their survival as Americans hunkered down in the early days of the pandemic. (The complete absence of face masks reminds us that back then, scientists questioned (and even mocked) the use of cloth masks to prevent spread of the coronavirus.) Without spending a lot of money on celebrity endorsers, DoorDash became the go-to app for people learning to eat at home, leading to a fevered IPO launch in the fall. Yet despite what we all refer to as “this unprecedented time,” DoorDash didn’t make money and has no road to profitability beyond another lockdown, making it seem destined to be one of those phenomena that we’ll refer to as “so 2020” in a few years.
Domino’s spent millions telling people about their contactless delivery and carside pickup, but the ad I’ll remember most is this early classic of the video-conferencing genre. In a year when more than 30 million people were unemployed at one point — it’s still at 20 million as I write this — commercials that offered Americans ways to make money rather than spend it were rare and welcome.
Walmart’s decision to lean into grocery delivery produced a cultural shift that may very well outlast the current crisis. By suggesting that even families on a budget (i.e., Walmart families) could have groceries and stuff delivered to their doorsteps, Walmart moved the country one step closer to abandoning brick-and-mortar stores for good. However, this ad makes a disastrous error by encouraging gatherings of up to eleven (!) family members. It was likely shot months ago, before such gatherings became the number-one source of coronavirus spread.
COVID denial commercials came in two forms this year. The first was the kind that pretended the world really wasn’t in lockdown. I'm not referring to long-running pharmaceutical ads which have always beenset in a Land of Make Believe, but brand-new high-visibility spots for major brands that should know better. I saw this appalling Coca-Cola ad two weeks ago during an NFL game. It shows a group of friends coming together to watch the game in close quarters — exactly the kind of behavior that got millions infected.
The other type of COVID-denial ad was the kind that didn’t show unsafe behavior but simply compartmentalized the world into two groups: The Suffering Masses and Our Customers. This holiday ad first appeared in 2018, but it’s back. And unlike the fantasies Big Pharma puts on TV, you really can imagine two people with enough money to ride out the lockdown rewarding themselves with matching $40,000 trucks.
It took me a while to realize that Sonic had finally stopped using those two pasty-faced white guys in their TV ads and replaced them with people of color. Normally this would be something to applaud, except that blacks and Latinos are dying from COVID at six times the rate of white persons with the virus. That is almost certainly due to the risk factors they are carrying around, risk factors that are inflamed by eating too much crap from places like Sonic.
For many people 2020 was not only the year when a virus upended everything, it was the year a would-be tinpot dictator was ordered to stand down by a vote of the people. The two events were related. Had the president not been so attached to his narratives of non-responsibility for the “Chyna virus,” he might have seen this nonpartisan plague as the one thing that could torpedo his re-election. Thousands of hours of TV airtime were spent pointing out the administration’s inept coronavirus response. Yet nothing stood out quite so boldly as “Failure,” a two-minute spot produced in July by the Lincoln Project. An effort by political strategists from within the president’s own party to deny him victory, the Lincoln Project collected $78 million in small-dollar donations and aired dozens of pointed, angry, sarcastic ads on shows like Fox & Friends, a favorite of the Tivoer-in-Chief. I’m not sure they made much of a difference in the end, but they sure were interesting, which is almost never true of political ads.
Here’s a term I learned this year: deepfake. As in, Budweiser’s ad agency dusted off a commercial that everyone of a certain age remembers and used deepfake technology to make it seem like the characters were in quarantine. Odd but innovative, the ad got a “true” for effort.
Thanks to Jersey Mike’s advertising blitz of 2020, we're unlikely to sson forget the flat teleprompter voice of Peter Cancro, the chain’s founder. A lot of corporate America spent 2020 convincing you that they weren’t going to give you coronavirus. Cancro’s message, though, was more endearing and attuned to the present moment. Help each other and believe that we will build back better than ever, just like a humble sandwich jockey who was given the chance to buy the store.
Netflix’s “New movies every week” campaign was one of the most 2020 ads of 2020. If this truly is the end of the cineplex as we know it, Netflix’s Oscar-worthy slate of films and its massive TV spend to tell you about them will be just as much the reason as the lockdown. For some reason I couldn’t find the exact ad I wanted to show you — you’ve undoubtedly seen it a few dozen times — so instead enjoy this blast from the past, a simpler time when watching movies at home was a luxury that Netflix made possible through the cutting-edge technology of the U.S. Postal Service.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.