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Frito-Lay’s new COVID-19 ad is an anti-brand manifesto. Too bad it’s still a commercial

If Frito-Lay doesn’t tell people about all the great stuff that it’s doing, how will we know about it?

Frito-Lay’s new COVID-19 ad is an anti-brand manifesto. Too bad it’s still a commercial
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When is an ad not an ad?

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And if an ad claims not to be an ad, but it still walks, talks, and quacks like an ad, is it an ad?

Last Friday, Frito-Lay launched a new commercial that boldly claims that the middle of the COVID-19 crisis is not about brands. Forget all those sales pitches disguised as emotional empathy or silly logo redesigns, the spot tells us, this isn’t a time to be “advertising.”

What better way to convey this message than with . . . um, advertising?

Brands taking to the airwaves to not-so humblebrag is nothing new.

What’s interesting here is how Frito-Lay dolls up this message in a decidedly anti-ad makeover, essentially scolding other brands for being so gauche as to advertise in the middle of a pandemic.

Obviously Frito-Lay creating 3,000 new full-time jobs with benefits, donating over $15 million to relief efforts, providing 20 million meals to at-risk students and families, and funding mobile health clinics across the United States to provide COVID-19 screenings to the public are all laudable moves. But couching it in holier-than-thou anti-ad sentiment is a bold take. Especially when, and let’s be clear, this is 100% an ad itself. The dilemma is clear. If Frito-Lay doesn’t tell people about all the great stuff that it’s doing, how will we know about it?

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If a (corporate do-gooding) tree falls in a (media) forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Pics or it didn’t happen, right?

Why not dispense with the pretense and just create a feel-good ad that puts to shame those separated logos and other vapid commercial gestures with the substance of those jobs and the effect of that financial support told in a no-nonsense manner?

Using an ad to basically ad-shame everyone else is where Frito-Lay lost me here.

“The world doesn’t need brands to tell us how to think or feel.” Absolutely. But who is the “us” in this scenario? Us, the viewer? Us, the global corporation?

Here’s a brand (okay, parent to more than 20 different brands) telling us what we don’t need. Of course, it’s probably right, but then again maybe Ford customers do want a message of reassurance that they’ll get a break on their car payments. Or hell, maybe someone is actually empty enough in their soul to need a pat on the back from Burger King for sitting on their couch. That doesn’t change the fact that Frito-Lay is running an ad telling us not to listen to other ads. Which comes across as less “It’s about people,” and more “It’s about us, people.”

This isn’t an ad for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Cool Ranch Doritos, or Funyuns, but Frito-Lay’s corporate behavior. Which is all fine, good, and perfectly warranted, particularly at a time when it appears to be exemplary. The company has followed CDC guidelines when employees have tested positive, and U.S. workers have been given increased hourly wages and extended benefits (such as 14-day paid leave to care for themselves or a family member).

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The risk, of course, is that this approach also draws the more critical eyes of an audience who, sitting at home, has nothing better to do than look for holes in the Frito-Lay story. To paraphrase Omar from The Wire, you make claims like a corporate king, you best not miss.

If Frito-Lay does keep up the admirable company action, at least we need not worry that we’ll hear all about it. Because it’s about people . . . who work at Frito-Lay.

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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