Originally published in December 2020, this blog post was updated in September 2021.
In February 2020, KFC leaned into its “finger lickin’ good” slogan with a TV spot that showed models licking their fingers at great, comical length. (Set to Chopin, naturally.)
Haven’t seen it? Neither have most people. That’s because in mid-March of 2020, KFC froze the campaign. At that time, as you probably remember, touching your face, let alone sticking your hands in your mouth, felt dangerous — not fun.
In the early days of the pandemic, many other brands abruptly changed plans. Half of brand professionals said that altering messaging and content in response to the developing pandemic was their top priority in April 2020, according to a Bynder study. The same study revealed that 94% of companies were altering their brand strategy.
Some brands went quiet; others announced vaguely, via email, that they were “here” (where?) for their customers.
What is a pandemic ad? A paid ad that addresses the coronavirus pandemic explicitly or implicitly.
There was no silver bullet answer to marketing through the pandemic, though. Somber piano music went from resonant to laughable.
Tributes to healthcare workers went from trendy to trite. Stay-at-home messages lost relevance as the world opened back up — then regained relevance, in some places more than others, as the Delta variant swept the nation.
Like all of us, brands have had to pivot again and again as the pandemic drags on and the mood evolves. The most effective ads of the pandemic had the right message and tone at the right time.
We realized we could divide those campaigns into five categories:
- The “people over profit” campaign
- The “we know you’re online” campaign
- The “straight-talk” campaign
- The “haha we’re all isolated” campaign
- The “we’ll get through this together” campaign
Let’s look at the best examples of each type of campaign, and what makes each one tick.
The “people over profit” campaigns by Cottonelle, Dove, Ford and others
This type of ad wasn’t invented during the pandemic, but it really gained popularity during 2020. Whether announcing a charitable partnership or sharing a public health PSA, these five campaigns work because they pair a feeling of understanding and compassion with concrete actions — like donations or public service.
Cottonelle’s #ShareASquare campaign.
- The origin story: Created during the great toilet paper shortage of spring 2020 (remember when even Amazon was out?), this 30-second video spot and social media campaign reassured customers that Cottonelle could meet spiking demand.
- Why we love it: The simple transition of the white background into a white square is eye-catching enough to stop you mid-scroll.
- A sign other people love it, too: More than 6,000 people engaged with the #ShareASquare hashtag ”because it was so social-first and there was a very clear call to action to it,” Lisa Bright of FCB told the American Marketing Association.
Uber’s “Thank You for Not Riding” PSA.
- The origin story: As part of its Uber Stop Moving Campaign, the ride-sharing company tapped filmmakers sheltering in place all over the world to create a video reminder to stay home.
- Why we love it: Telling customers not to use your service or buy your product can easily come across as gimmicky. But because it showed real people navigating life in quarantine — sometimes forced to communicate through windows — Uber’s PSA felt grounded.
- A sign other people love it, too: Even Uber’s competitors had to give them kudos. (Sort of.) ”I think they out-’woked’ Lyft,” John McNeil, Lyft’s former COO, told Fortune.
Visa’s “Do Your Part Like an Olympian/Paralympian” campaign.
- The origin story: When the 2020 Olympic Games were postponed in March, long-time sponsor Visa transformed the campaign it was working on into short PSAs promoting hand-washing and social distancing.
- Why we love it: Visa had the athletes film themselves on smartphones, giving the videos a homemade look that felt authentic, and fit right in on social platforms.
- A sign other people love it, too: The videos racked up hundreds of thousands of views on the athletes’ social media channels.
Dove’s “Courage Is Beautiful” campaign.
- The origin story: To announce its donation to Direct Relief, Dove released a simple yet powerful homage to healthcare workers: a 30-second montage of doctors’ and nurses’ faces, all marked by protective gear.
- Why we love it: The closeup shots, and first names listed next to the photos, force the viewer to look into the eyes of real people who have put their lives on the line for others. In keeping with its reputation for redefining beauty, Dove celebrates their weary eyes, bruises, and red marks as signs of courage.
- A sign other people love it, too: The ad got major earned media coverage; Today praised it for “bring[ing] a new meaning to the concept of beauty and courage.”
Ford’s “Built to Lend a Hand” ads.
- The origin story: In perhaps the fastest turnaround of the coronavirus era, Ford scrapped its existing creative mid-March and had a brand-new campaign ready to go in just three days. Called “Built to Lend a Hand,” the series of commercials was one of the first to talk about the pandemic.
- Why we love it: Ford doesn’t just offer comforting platitudes — it backs up its promise to help Americans with action: payment relief for new car owners.
- A sign other people love it, too: Did we mention that Ford customers got to defer their car payments?
Unilever’s “United for America” campaign.
- The origin story: Instead of delivering platitudes, Unilever wanted to deliver both money and products from its brands to communities suffering from the pandemic. It produced this “Essential Supplies” ad to promote the initiative.
- Why we love it: Unilever donated 30,000 meals to healthcare workers and $2.5 million worth of Dove products to Feeding America.
- A sign other people love it, too: This ad scored 20% higher than most COVID-related ads in an Ace Metrix study. Viewers particularly appreciated the song “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” — a refreshing choice, since so many pandemic ads featured doleful piano music.
The “we know you’re online” campaigns by Google, Chipotle, Microsoft and others
During the great pandemic repositioning, as customers found themselves at home and on their screens more often, some brick-and-mortar businesses adapted to meet customers where they were: online.
They acknowledged that their customers’ daily routines were looking a little different, and altered their product offerings to match.
Mattel’s virtual playroom.
- The origin story: Recognizing how hard the pandemic has been on cooped-up kids and working-from-home parents, Mattel launched a virtual playroom featuring games, craft projects, printables, videos, and more.
- Why we love it: Instead of just issuing a general coronavirus statement, Mattel identified a need and responded with legitimately useful content — for free. The company didn’t just post it and forget it, either: Mattel recently rolled out a refresh for the holidays.
- A sign other people love it, too: “We are in unprecedented times, and brands are really throwing it all out there to help us get through it,” wrote Romper. "None of us know how long this will last, so knowing that there is an ongoing resource for play—an essential part of children's lives—is a comfort.”
Chipotle Together live events.
- The origin story: When the pandemic forced Chipotle to close its doors, the burrito chain began hosting Zoom lunch parties and Instagram Live concerts with celebrities like Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski, and Kaskade.
- Why we love it: Chipotle reached customers where they were — online — and helped them fill those early, dull days of the pandemic, which kept the brand top of mind even when dining out wasn’t an option.
- A sign other people love it, too: In less than a month, Chipotle Together generated 500 million impressions and 100 earned media stories.
Getty Museum’s homemade art challenge.
- The origin story: Early in the pandemic, a Dutch Instagram account challenged people to recreate artwork using only people or objects in their home. The Getty Museum jumped on the trend, creating its own quarantine versions of classic art pieces and challenging its Twitter followers to do the same.
- Why we love it: Challenges were all over social media during the lockdown, but this one felt like a breath of fresh air. It offered people a way to engage with art while museums and galleries were closed, and it drove traffic to Getty’s online art collection (no small feat).
- A sign other people love it, too: People went all out for it, contributing over 24,000 recreations in the first month.
Microsoft’s “Ticket to Tokyo” campaign.
- The origin story: Fans were psyched for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics — until visitors were banned from attending due to COVID surges. To soften the blow, Microsoft put the social side of Teams on display with virtual tours of Tokyo, and premiered the ads during the Olympics’ opening ceremonies.
- Why we love it: The ads showed that a product most people associate with work could also be used for browsing vintage stores, getting to know new people, and even visiting cat cafés.
- A sign other people love it, too: Some of the ads got 4+ million views on YouTube, and in the video’s comment section, customers started asking if they could participate in future virtual tours.
Google’s “Get Back to What You Love” video.
- The origin story: Google acknowledged its role in getting information about the pandemic to viewers, and created a PSA series to encourage people to get credible vaccine information on YouTube and Google. The ads started playing on YouTube in March, but one video, “Get Back to What You Love,” got viral attention after airing on television during the NCAA Final Four.
- Why we love it: It echoes Google’s 2010 “Parisian Love” ad, which told a love story through Google searches — except this ad shows how Google can take people out of their pandemic bubbles and back to in-person events.
- A sign other people love it, too: The video went viral, and was watched more than 2 million times on YouTube.
The “haha we’re all isolated” campaigns by Burger King, Pepsi, Extra and others
Some brands found humor — and common ground with customers — in the bizarre firsts of lockdown life.
As the pandemic went on and vaccines made it possible for people to end their isolation, these campaigns evolved into jokes about past isolation and social anxiety.
The ads below succeed because they tie back to the brand’s value prop, and avoid mocking consumers too harshly.
Burger King’s “Couch Potatriot” ads.
- The origin story: To promote free delivery during Covid — and announce its support of The American Nurses Foundation — Burger King repurposed existing footage to create a humorous spot honoring “couch potatriats” (read: people sheltering in place).
- Why we love it: The irreverent play on a wartime ad, complete with a dramatic soundtrack and over-the-top voiceover, feels uniquely Burger King, without coming across as tone deaf.
- A sign other people love it, too: The term “couch potatriot” got some love on Twitter — and even made it into Urban Dictionary.
Billie’s “Are We Doing Video?” Instagram campaign.
- The origin story: While working remotely during the lockdown, the team at Billie noticed a trend: Everyone was always apologizing for the way they looked on video. To combat this negative self-talk, the DTC shaving brand launched an Instagram campaign that asks, “What if we stopped apologizing for looking like ourselves?”
- Why we love it: Instead of generically responding to the pandemic, Billie dug into specifics by showing real people, having real (read: unscripted) responses to seeing themselves on Zoom.
- A sign other people love it, too: The Instagram post generated more than half a million views and was picked up by multiple publications.
Bulleit’s “New Drinking Buddies” ad.
- The origin story: During lockdown, people missed their friends and old routines — but Bulleit’s ad noted that not everything had changed. There are “drinking buddies everywhere,” even if your new buddy is a cheese grater.
- Why we love it: The ad doesn’t focus too much on the challenges of quarantine. Instead, it highlights absurdity.
- A sign other people love it, too: Ace Metrix’s panel of ad viewers scored the ad unusually highly for humor and quirkiness — in May 2020, Ace Metrix’s viewer analysis put it in the top three highest performing pandemic ads.
Mint Mobile’s “New ManageMint” video ad.
- The origin story: In this ad, Ryan Reynolds says that due to the pandemic, Mint Mobile had to hit pause on an “epic” first commercial (featuring a tiger) — so he’s sharing a PowerPoint instead.
- Why we love it: It’s chock-full of funny Easter eggs, like a folder titled “Thoughts on time travel” on the actor’s desktop, and a pie chart showing only 10% of Reynolds’ movies “made some sense.”
- A sign other people love it, too: “It’s too early to tell if the Aviation Gin playbook will work for phone plans,” Fast Company said in a May story. But three months later, the skepticism appeared to have worn off: the magazine named Reynolds one of 2020’s Most Creative People.
Pepsi’s “Football is Calling” campaign.
- The origin story: In 2021, after a yearlong pause on social gatherings, people started making plans again. This ad jokingly encourages football fans to stay home, watch football, and drink Pepsi — “even if it comes at the expense of social or household obligations,” Pepsi’s VP of Marketing Todd Kaplan said.
- Why we love it: The casting of Breaking Bad and Billions star David Costabile makes the ad feels like a callback to famous locker room speeches, and it has a shareable message — and e can imagine football fans sharing it passive-aggressively in their group chats.
- A sign other people love it, too: The ad topped 1.3 million views on Youtube in just a week.
Procter & Gamble’s #DistanceDance on TikTok.
- The origin story: When the pandemic shut most of the country down in March, people started spending a lot more time on TikTok. So to help spread the stay-at-home message, Procter & Gamble tapped the platform’s biggest star, Charli D’Amelio, to create a #DistanceDance challenge.
- Why we love it: Despite being a branded video and a PSA, it fits the platform. A major factor in that: P&G gave D’Amelio complete creative control over the song choice and the moves.
- A sign other people love it, too: The video — and the dance — went viral, generating over 5.9 billion views and 1.6 million original videos in the first week.
SeatGeek’s “Get Your Seat in a Seat” campaign.
- The origin story: Most people spent the pandemic sitting in the same places over and over again. So SeatGeek imagined how excited our behinds might be to have events to attend — and new chairs to sit in.
- Why we love it: The ads are funny, and they give viewers an extra reason to go out again. It’s not selfish — it’s a gift to your butt. Your talking butt.
- A sign other people love it, too: The campaign got a writeup in AdAge, and 700,000+ views on YouTube within a month of its debut.
Extra Gum’s “For When It’s Time” short film.
- The origin story: Before they knew exactly how the vaccine rollout would go, Extra joined customers in imagining a post-pandemic world. It involved a lot of Frenching strangers — and chewing Extra gum to stay fresh.
- Why we love it: The ad meets people in their fantasies, and successfully connects the brand with a brighter future.
- A sign other people love it, too: YouTube commenters called the ad “the best quarantine commercial ever made” and “the only skippable ad I will never skip.”
The “straight-talk” campaigns by Entireworld, Steak-umm, Match.com and others
This type of campaign works by catching customers off-guard with honesty. But instead of keeping the tone purely humorous, it gets a little vulnerable or critical.
The key to making a “straight talk” campaign work? A thorough understanding of a brand’s audience — what about the pandemic has hit them hardest, and how your brand help them get through it.
Entireworld’s “Wow, WTF” email.
- The origin story: On March 15, 2020 — a day when most companies were sending out formulaic emails about “these uncertain times” — Entireworld founder Scott Sternberg sent a heartfelt email to the company’s 30,000-person list to promote a 25% discount on leisurewear.
- Why we love it: By being transparent, human, and vulnerable (“Will my mom be okay on her flight home today?”), Sternberg earned permission to be transactional.
- A sign other people love it, too: Entireworld sold more than 1,000 sweats the day the email went out. Its prior daily average? 46.
Coors Light’s #CouldUseABeer campaign.
- The origin story: A quarantining 93-year-old woman became an internet sensation when a photo of her with a Coors Light and “I need more beer” sign made the rounds on Facebook. The Colorado brewery not only sent 10 cases to her door; it turned it into an ad campaign.
- Why we love it: Instead of referring to the pandemic as trying, uncertain times, it calls it straight-up “sucky.” It could have come across as flippant, but instead, it felt honest.
- A sign other people love it, too: A social report by Hootsuite commends Coors Light for its “lighthearted approach in a campaign that offered real value to consumers.”
Steak-umm’s Twitter thread about media literacy.
- The origin story: Back in April 2020, the frozen beef company posted a 400-word Twitter treatise about data journalism, misinformation and media literacy.
- Why we love it: It’s bold, especially coming from a brand that has nothing to do with media or politics. But the tweets are thoughtful and self-aware (one even calls out the irony of this coming from a brand that posts ads “inevitably made to misdirect people and generate sales”) — and because Steak-umm had already established a human, irreverent voice on the social media platform, it works.
- A sign other people love it, too: Steak-umm more than doubled its Twitter following in a month and traffic to its website more than quadrupled.
Match.com’s “Match Made in Hell” video.
- The origin story: “We just imagined what a ‘2020 match’ would look like,” Ryan Reynolds, whose agency Maximum Effort created the ad, said in a statement. Match’s CMO, Ayesha Gilarde, said the ad was meant to acknowledge single people’s “resilience” as well as the worst parts of 2020.
- Why we love it: It included a snippet of not-yet-released re-record of Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” So it wasn’t just an ad — it was a Fearless (Taylor’s Version) preview!
- A sign other people love it, too: The video get over 1.5 million YouTube views, and some earned media attention in the New York Times. (Also, Swift called the ad “LOLsome.”)
The “we’ll get through this together” campaign by Apple, Barilla, Airbnb and others
This type of campaign includes ads often described as “heartwarming.” Ads in this category typically feature warm-fuzzy customer stories, an emphasis on community spirit, and sometimes the exact words, “We’ll get through this together.”
The risk: campaigns in this category can easily skew towards empty platitudes or get lost in emotion. But the following brands pulled it off by tying their message of unity back to the brand, and keeping their focus on the future. (Big budgets didn’t hurt, either.)
Apple’s “Creativity Goes On” TV ad.
- The origin story: It took just two weeks for Apple to pull together its first pandemic-era TV ad, which weaves together found footage of artists, celebrities, and everyday people making things and finding ways to be creative in lockdown.
- Why we love it: The juxtaposition of celebrities like John Krasinski, filming Some Good News in swim trunks and bare feet, and normal people, doing yoga in messy living rooms, gives it a we’re-all-in-quarantine-together feel.
- A sign other people love it, too: The video generated nearly 4 million views on YouTube.
Barilla’s short film, “The Rooftop Match”.
- The origin story: During Italy’s lockdown, two young tennis players went viral for their rooftop matches. They not only caught the attention of the world — they also caught the attention of pasta maker Barilla, who sent brand ambassador Roger Federer to surprise them in their hometown.
- Why we love it: The heartwarming film feels less like an ad and more like watching parents surprise their kids with a trip to Disney World — or, in this case, a match with the greatest tennis player of all time.
- A sign other people love it, too: The ad generated more than 22 million views on YouTube.
Airbnb’s “Homes with Pools” Olympics ad.
- The origin story: This successful slideshow-style campaign started with a flop: Airbnb’s February 2021 “Made Possible by Hosts” campaign. The goal: to “connect [travelers] with the sense of nostalgia we all feel about trips we took with people we care about.” The reality: Those ads really reminded people of death. This update on the concept — featuring Olympic athletes, upbeat music and candids from artistic swimming rehearsals — worked much better.
- Why we love it: The pivot showed that Airbnb was listening to customers. Plus, it was smart to lean into the company’s partnership with the Olympic Games for a dose of relevance.
- A sign other people love it, too: Airbnb’s Olympics programming, which included virtual and in-person Olympics Experiences, earned the company serious media attention.
Amazon’s short film, “The Show Must Go On”.
- The origin story: For its holiday campaign, Amazon created a two-minute video that follows a young ballerina (played by French dancer Taïs Vinolo) as she trains for a performance, only to have it get canceled because of the coronavirus.
- Why we love it: Amazon only makes a brief cameo, when the ballerina’s neighbor buys a spotlight on his phone — subtle product placement that feels just right for a 2020 holiday ad.
- A sign other people love it, too: Adweek praised the ad for casting Vinolo, which “imbues the project with a profound cultural impact and meaning at this moment, as the world—and particularly the United States—grapples with systemic racism.”
Guinness’s St. Patrick’s Day message.
- The origin story: With bars closed and St. Patrick’s Day parades banned in most of the world, Guinness celebrated its favorite holiday with a hopeful commercial, letting people know it wasn’t going anywhere. (It has a 9,000-year lease on its brewery, after all.)
- Why we love it: It acknowledges that the pandemic has made 2020 “different,” but it still manages to feel upbeat. The narrator’s Irish accent definitely helps.
- A sign other people love it, too: The ad garnered accolades from media and fans alike. One YouTube user commented, “Bro, did I just tear up at a beer commercial?”
Nike’s “You Can’t Stop Us” video.
- The origin story: Nike’s first response to the pandemic was a social push called “You Can’t Stop Us,” which encouraged people to “play inside, play for the world.” But it was the third iteration of the campaign — a video by the same name — that really stood out.
- Why we love it: It’s a masterclass in editing. The side-by-side pairing of 53 athletes across 24 sports is mesmerizing, and Megan Rapinoe’s powerful narration lines up with the footage. (“We’ll find a way,” she says, over footage of quarantining kids playing tennis at home; “when things aren’t fair,” she says, as the players take a knee.)
- A sign other people love it, too: The video went viral, with over 40 million views on Twitter and more than 58 million on YouTube.
To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway’s “Welcome Back” short film.
- The origin story: Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird gave the largest single performance in theater history to New York schoolchildren on February 26, 2020 — and we all know what happened just a few weeks later. Ahead of Broadway’s reopening, Sorkin wrote a short film to encourage people to return to his show, and theatre in general, in person.
- Why we love it: The video makes it feel like Jeff Daniels (who plays Atticus Finch in the production) is talking to viewers. And while it was made for the wildly popular To Kill a Mockingbird, the ad also gets viewers excited for all theatre productions.
- A sign other people love it, too: Trade publications called the ad “heartwarming,” and praised it for including behind-the-scenes workers — like audio technicians and stagehands — that audiences typically don’t get to see.
Samuel Adams’ “Your Cousin From Boston Gets Vaccinated” ad.
- Origin story: Samuel Adams wanted to connect its brand with the benefits of the vaccine — and the possibility of future social gatherings. So the beer company revived its “Your Cousin from Boston” character, whose campaigns had been paused during the pandemic.
- Why we love it: Alongside this ad, Samuel Adams offered $7 to buy a beer to the first 10,000 people who posted pictures of their vaccination stickers on social media with hashtag #SHOTFORSAM.
- A sign other people love it, too: The ad was viewed over 14 million times on YouTube.
The two keys to a great pandemic ad
What’s the takeaway from all the great ads above? Well, they exemplify what pandemic performance data was already telling us.
In July 2020, a study by the Advertising Benchmark Index suggested that pandemic ads were more effective than business-as-usual ones in promoting brand reputation, perceived ad relevance and overall effectiveness — but only when they had two essentials:
- A clear connection to the sponsor
- An optimistic angle
Especially at the start of the pandemic, brands often flubbed the first one. Research from Google found that when brands leaned too hard into emotional pandemic messaging, they often failed to create a strong link to the brand itself.
The smartest brands, like Entireworld, avoided this. The “Wow, WTF” email was emotional, but it also included a positive tie-in to the brand — a discount code for Entireworld’s sweatsuits, which would prove to be some people’s pandemic uniform.
It was anything but a generic “thanks, heroes” message.
The optimistic angle might sound basic, but some brands took a fear-based approach (or a regular approach that suddenly felt fear-based) — and flopped. Research published in the Harvard Business Review suggested that messaging around perseverance and the future was the most effective way advertisers could speak to their customers.
We think that’s why the Bulleit ad that showcased perseverance (through cheersing with inanimate objects at home) and the Extra ad that gave customers hope for the future (and making out with strangers in the park) were so successful.
Basically, it works best to link your brand concretely and memorably to hope. Not so effective, from a business perspective? Promoting the concept of hope in general.
Though in trying times, it’s a nice thing to do off the clock.
Jay Blades contributed reporting for this story.