In February, 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.)
Soon after, coronavirus began to tear around the globe, and the humor soured. Touching your face, let alone sticking your hands in your mouth, was dangerous.
In mid-March, KFC froze the campaign.
It wasn’t alone. In the early days of the pandemic, many other brands abruptly changed their plans. Some went quiet; others announced vaguely, via email, that they were “here” (where?) for their customers.
There was no silver bullet answer to marketing through the pandemic, though. Like all of us, brands have had to pivot again and again during this tumultuous year. Tributes to healthcare workers went from trendy to trite. Stay-at-home messages lost relevance as the world opened back up — then regained it, during this most recent surge in cases.
It was a challenge — and some brands really rose to it. Below, we rounded up our 20 favorite ads of the pandemic era.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
Burger King’s “Stay Home of the Whopper” 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
Steak-umm’s Twitter thread about media literacy
- The origin story: Back in April, 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.
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.”
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.