What are brands thinking as they hype normalcy while pandemic numbers spike?

Budweiser, McDonald’s, Jeep, and more are teasing us with the rewards of reopening. It risks being a huge mistake.

What are brands thinking as they hype normalcy while pandemic numbers spike?
[Photo: Andrew Herashchenko/Unsplash; Linus Mimietz/Unsplash; iXimus/Pixabay]

Advertising has always been a bit like a trick mirror, reflecting back our culture to us in a way that can—in the right light—appear totally realistic.


But upon closer inspection, the branded version of our lives is always a bit . . . off.

Like the burger that looks too perfect. Or the shampoo that induces sexy hallucination. Or people having waaaay too much fun at an Applebee’s.

So what’s happening in the culture when we look into the advertising mirror and see some brands using their ads to celebrate a return to societal normalcies like going for a drive to somewhere with more people, to eating out, or grabbing a drink in a crowded bar?

This week, Budweiser posted a new spot to the tune of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” which felt a bit on the nose. The Clydesdale breaks free! The puppy escapes! The beach! The city!


Oh wait, it doesn’t look like that bartender is wearing a mask . . . Ahhh, there’s no way those horses are 6 feet apart. Why am I even noticing these things?

Three months in a socially distanced pseudo-reality will do that to a person.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s wants you to know just how special that first McChicken back in public will taste.

Just guessing here, but because it’s McDonald’s, it’s going to taste like every other McChicken you’ve ever had.

Again, it’s hard not to watch this 15-second spot and experience an adrenaline spike. What’s with all the hands? Are they touching my fries?


Can’t even watch a beer or fast-food ad now without seeing a health risk.

Will this pandemic spare nothing?!

Disney Parks wants you to know that it’s retrofitting its entire system somehow to allow crowds, albeit smaller ones, to happily mingle in a magical kingdom. Masks are required, except for when dining and swimming, two instances when drool, sneezing, or coughing definitely don’t happen.

Did I mention that Florida reported 5,004 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, its second-highest tally for a single day? Or that Disneyland in California had to delay its announced July 17 reopening this week after cases there surged again? Did you see that USA Today headline: “Calls grow for Disney World to delay reopening as coronavirus cases spike“?

Maybe a theme-park visit was too ambitious a dream. What about hitting the open road with mask-less friends and family? That’s what Jeep really wants us looking forward to. Way back on June 2, Jeep’s ad aimed to go over the lessons of the last few months while also appreciating freedom, mind you, all in a very whew-thank-goodness-that’s-all-over tone.


The ad mirror reflects us giving in to our pent-up desires—to meet up at the bar or take that vacation—at the very moment there has been a surge of COVID-19 cases across the United States, directly related to states’ premature reopening policies.

Are ads like this helping us feel better by reminding us that someday it will all be fine? Or are they lulling us into a false sense of security and comfort? I hear Freddie Mercury crooning “Don’t stop me now!” in that Budweiser ad and can’t help but think of it as a battle cry for those crowded Wisconsin bars back in May, or those casually standing shoulder to shoulder on a New York City street the other week.

Yet there is Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, telling CNN, “The big metro areas seem to be rising very quickly and some of the models are on the verge of being apocalyptic.”



Hard to believe that any brand wants to be the official sponsor of the apocalypse.

Advertisers are stuck. We’ve all already told them to quit the sad piano act. Whimsical Zoom backgrounds will only go so far. But brands pretending that the all-clear bell has been rung risks them looking like they’re diminishing the severity of the problem—or worse, that they don’t care if their customers get sick.

A balance needs to be struck between the wish for better days and the acknowledgement that normalcy may still be a long while coming.

Lexus did a solid job last week, embracing aspiration while still keeping the scheduling of it all on just this side of vague realism.

Brands ultimately want to make you happy, so they tell what you want to hear. Of course that shirt makes you look cool. Go ahead and try this stuffed crust pizza. Put on some real clothes and go grab a beer.


Of course, we want to hear it. As Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson told The New York Times, after months of an alarming news cycle and isolation, plenty of people have stopped wearing masks and social distancing out of sheer fatigue. “They’ve been asked for quite some time to not be around people they love, and that they want to spend time with,” said Johnson. “Wearing a mask is not pleasant. And I think people are tired.”

Can brands somehow reenergize people while not freaking them out—and actually making something that’s 15-, 30-, or 60-seconds long that’s compelling enough to enjoy watching between sports games with no crowds?

It may be an impossible task.

For ads that encourage a too-early return to normalcy, the song may be “Don’t Stop Me Now,” but don’t be surprised if all consumers can hear is “Another One Bites the Dust.”

About the author

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