Hey! We're All In This Together, Right?

Tom McNichol

Sure, a global pandemic has its downsides, but one bright spot has been the thousands of formerly heartless companies now assuring us that We’re All in this Together. Who knew that Corporate America has been our trusted companion all along?

The COVID-19 platitudes follow a now-familiar recipe. Two cups of We’re in This Together, a cup of In These Uncertain Times, a dollop of Stay Safe, a tablespoon of The Health and Safety of Our Customers, a teaspoon of You Are Not Alone and a pinch of What’s Really Important. Add plenty of cheese. And don’t forget to wash your hands. Oh, and for God’s sake, keep buying stuff you don’t need with money you don’t have, we’re all in this together.

As Dr. Pepper’s latest ad put it: “Together, we will overcome this challenge.” Comforting words, especially coming from a doctor.

For companies that had already been limping from bad luck or malfeasance, the plague is a once-in-a-century branding opportunity. Just a few months ago, Pacific Gas and Electric was the Northern California utility that state regulators determined was directly responsible for the 2018 wildfire in Butte County that killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 structures.

Now PG&E is flooding my In Box with empathetic emails, the latest of which declares, “We’re here to help throughout the COVID-19 crisis. The health and safety of our customers, our employees and the communities that we serve is our primary responsibility.”

Our primary responsibility! I hope PG&E knows what to do if the coronavirus starts spreading like wildfire.

The selling of the coronavirus is a shame-free zone – even cruise lines are getting in on the act, even though cruise ships are pretty much an all-you-can-infect buffet for the coronavirus. Royal Caribbean Cruises posts this message on its website:

“Please know that every decision we make, and all of the fine-tuning we do, has your well-being in mind. We miss you – and can’t wait to welcome you back onboard.”

The Grand Princess site declares, “Cruise with confidence. Keeping you safe and healthy.”

Disney Cruise Line assures would-be passengers that it “consistently receives among the highest public health inspection scores and has health and safety protocols inplace.” Among Disney’s new safety protocols: discontinuing self-service at buffet locations.

All of the major cruise lines are offering refunds. But several offer this option for customers who’d rather die than miss a cruise: in lieu of a refund, full credit towards a future cruise. No doubt the cruise companies are anxious to get back to a simpler time when the worst thing that could happen to you on a cruise ship was to catch a totally non-fatal norovirus that merely sent you to your cabin for a few days with explosive diarrhea.

Another bad actor hoping to polish its reputation is Smithfield Foods, the giant meat company that owns the Sioux Falls, South Dakota pork processing plant that became a Covid hotspot in April, with more than 600 cases linked to the plant. But no need to dwell on the past. Smithfield’s website features this promise: “Good food. Responsibly.”

In case you think that’s nothing more than a tagline, the next line states (and this is true): “So Much More Than a Tagline.” Yes, and COVID-19 is So Much More Than the Flu.

Altria is another corporate giant that wants you to know that “we’re doing all we can to protect our employees, consumers and communities from the virus.” As Altria’s senior vice president for Corporate Citizenship puts it, “Caring for each other and doing what’s right is core to our company.”

When Altria isn’t caring for each other and doing what’s right, they’re one of the world’s largest producers of cigarettes, the parent company of Phillip Morris, makers of Marlboro. For proof that there is such a thing as karma, in late March, Altria announced that its CEO had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Covid-themed advertising pitches are taking many forms, not unlike the mutating virus itself. CBS enlisted more than 50 of its actors to appear in a public service announcement to remind viewers that “you are not alone” because “we’re all in this together.”

The “stars” of the PSA include Iain Armitage of Young Sheldon, Sonequa Martin-Green of Star Trek: Discovery, and Phil Keoghan of The Amazing Race – unknown actors CBS hopes to publicize by hitching them to the coronavirus bandwagon. Watching the vapid PSA made me feel very alone and not at all in this together with CBS, despite the comforting presence of Sonequa Martin-Green of Star Trek: Discovery.

Writing ad copy is, of course, the refuge of otherwise unemployable Poetry MFAs. Anheuser-Busch has responded to COVID-19 with a heartfelt message that reads just like poem, provided you’ve had seven or eight Budweisers:

Our focus and commitment remain the same. We are in this together.

We can’t solve this problem on our own, but we can play an important role.

We will continue providing joy, comfort and normalcy.

We are doing this through our amazing products and beloved brands.

Not to be outdone, Budweiser competitor Molson Coors is running a quarantine-themed promotion for MOVO, its new alcoholic wine spritzer that contains just 100 calories and comes in three delicious flavors: Peach White Blend, Raspberry Rosé and Blood Orange Sangria. MOVO has set up a “Scream for Wine” hotline that lets Moms “quaranscream” about the pressures of being a Mom during lockdown.

While Mom enjoys a MOVO or five (5.5% alcohol-by-volume, compared to Coors Light’s 4.2%), she can scream into the phone and know that she’s not alone, even though she’s drinking alone. Mom will need to be strong when the kids start asking questions like, “Why does mommy fight with daddy so much?” and “How come mommy always takes a nap in the afternoon?”

Cable giant Comcast is redoubling its efforts to provide the type of customer service that makes it consistently top the lists of the most hated companies in America. As Comcast puts it, “To help keep our customers informed, we have created a collection of the most current news and information on COVID-19. Xfinity customers can say, ‘coronavirus’ into their voice remote for the latest news and information.” Not to be harsh, but if your sole source of COVID-19 information comes from saying “coronavirus” into your Comcast remote, I see a ventilator in your future.

It’s not hard to see why businesses have turned COVID-19 into a branding exercise. For one thing, it’s unseemly to do a hard sell in the midst of a tragedy, so companies are reduced to offering shameless messages of support, especially if their product is in no way helpful or relevant In These Uncertain Times.

It’s worth noting that the few companies that really are with us all the way in a time of crisis aren’t doing any advertising at all, which is why you’re not seeing any ads for toilet paper. But more fundamentally, the coronavirus corporate messaging is driven by fear.

Companies are afraid that the “new normal” may not include them, and want to put in a good word for themselves while they still can. Once everyone takes of their mask and starts buying stuff again, Dr. Pepper hopes you’ll remember that he helped you through some dark times. Oh, and he’s working on a vaccine.

For now, it’s hard to find any business that’s not reminding everyone what a big heart it has. After an exhaustive search, I finally found such a company.

Trump Hotels has been curiously tight-lipped about the coronavirus. The company’s website contains no message of empathy, no assurances that We’re All in This Together. If you dig deep enough, there’s a page that mentions Trump Hotels’ “extraordinary precautions” in light of COVID-19, and the company’s “long-standing commitment to providing impeccably clean properties,” which may have more to do with the famously germophobic owner.

In keeping with the boss’s unique relationship with the English language, the Trump Las Vegas hotel passes along this note:For the health and safety of our guests, and in accordance with local authorities, hotel operations at Trump Las Vegas have been temporarily ceased (sic).”

Too bad. Trump Hotels is missing the sort of PR opportunity that comes once in a lifetime before it gets temporarily ceased. How about this tagline that’s so much more than a tagline: “Trump Hotels. Luxury Gone Viral. No Mask Required.”

Tom McNichol is a contributing editor here at Journal of the Plague Year. We inherited him from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Public Radio, and Wired

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