At the outset of the pandemic, marketers in all industries wanted to make sure they were conveying the right message at what was and continues to be an incredibly difficult time for many people. The result was many—and we mean many—campaigns using similar language, images, and even music to speak to our need of hope and togetherness. However, with everyone marching to the same beat, the messages often came off as contrived rather than sincere. But not everyone was afraid to take risks, so we asked marketers for the best campaign they have seen during COVID that dared to try something different.
Nike’s “You Can’t Stop Us”
It’s interesting to reflect on standout campaigns from 2020, a year that [in]famously brought endless attention-monopolizing challenges.
Advertising, when done well, can participate in history-making conversations, driving awareness, elevating perspectives, and motivating behavior change—but when I looked closely at how the ad industry met the moment, I was shocked at the sameness, captured effectively by the supercut, “Every COVID-19 Commercial Is Exactly the Same.”
Some of the similarities stemmed from the overwhelming number of important questions advertisers had to consider when creating mid-COVID-19 content.
What angle should your story take, and how does it fit your brand’s narrative? Do you confront the state of the world, highlight the creativity of folks at home, or honor the dedication of frontline workers? Do you tell a triumphant story about our times, showing people banding together and looking out for their neighbors, or do you try to look at things a little differently? Decision paralysis seems to have contributed to all-encompassing homogeneity across many campaigns.
Nike’s memorable “You Can’t Stop Us” spot, on the other hand, deftly threads a needle through these issues. Often, a marketer’s challenge isn’t saying something new, but rather reframing it with a fresh lens. That’s why this Nike ad is so impressive—it tells a now-familiar story of resilience and dedication but uses a novel split-screen approach to stop viewers in their tracks, forcing them to pay close attention.
And while the split screen visual is an arresting editorial feat, the story that unfolds is a retelling of one directly from Nike’s classic brand playbook: an anthem of humanity that highlights us driving to excel, learning from our mistakes, and coming out the other side stronger. In this version, however, the backdrop of the pandemic looms, making the story weightier and the aspiration that much more urgent.
— Kris LoCascio, Group Creative Director, Heartbeat
McCann Health’s “The Kicker”
Early in the pandemic when coronavirus was spreading like wildfire in New York and New Jersey, it became clear that avoiding public door handles, washing hands, and using hand sanitizer were integral new behavior patterns everyone was adopting to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Kristen Giordano and her copy partners at McCann Health were quick to respond in early April with a real solution for first responders and essential workers all along the Eastern Seaboard. They created “The Kicker: Fighting Coronavirus Feet First.” The Kicker is a 3D printed door handle that opens doors with your foot to help avoid touching virus-infected door handles. They were distributed to local hospitals, restaurants, police stations, grocery stores, gas stations, etc., so people could more safely open doors. An idea with true purpose that functionally served to prevent the spread of the virus while also emotionally putting minds at ease.
— Tina Fascetti, Managing Director/Chief Creative Officer, Truth Serum NTWK
Beats by Dr. Dre Presents “You Love Me”
A lot of advertisers jumped to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd. But brands’ pro-racial justice messages largely dissipated as the calendar marched on. Not Beats by Dre. Months later, they stepped up with one of the most beautifully shot, poignantly written spots ever (https://bit.ly/3aXfXSh). The question posed, “You love Black culture, but do you love me?” would be relevant no matter the year. But it pierces that much deeper against the backdrop of Black Americans dying at a rate 2.8x higher than whites from COVID-19.
This spot took my breath away—and the poetry of that is not lost on me. In a year where George Floyd tragically said those last and famous words, “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times before dying, in a year where COVID took the last breath of more than 1.8M million people, it’s heartening that creativity can take one’s breath away—not resulting in a tragic ending, but rather sparking thought, dialogue, and new, awakened beginnings.
— Susan Perlbachs, Chief Creative Officer, Intouch Group
Mental Health Coalition’s “#EFF2020: A Holiday Campaign”
COVID changed the world and, at least temporarily, it changed advertising along with it. We immediately started seeing ads about being better by coming together, working together, and supporting each other. Then ads appealed to our better angels encouraging us to be safe, Zoom together, stay home, use masks, stand up for human rights, eliminate injustice, and vote for a better country. Many ads were very good. Some were great. What they tried to do, and what most failed to do, was make real strides to help people feel relief. Feel that cathartic release of frustration that could relieve the sense that we really are in this together and it really is OK to feel this way.
One ad that accomplished that is the Mental Health Coalition’s “#EFF2020: A Holiday Campaign,” which seeks $5 donations to help people address the real mental health challenges that have arisen due to the pandemic. The ad helps us overcome our frustrations with clever use of anger and an F-bomb or two (29 to be exact). F-bombs be damned, this ad uses the “say what everyone else is afraid to say” technique, brilliantly. It is effing smart, poignant, funny, and unifying. And it provides the release we need, all for a good cause.
— Steven Goldstein, Creative Director, Copy, Elevate Healthcare
Match’s “When Satan Met 2020”
OK, sure, I cried at the Doc Morris holiday commercial of the old guy lifting a kettlebell so he could lift his granddaughter to put the star on top of the Christmas tree. And sure, all the other COVID commercials tug at your heart strings…but who needs to feel more emotion right now? Ugh—I’m sick of feeling sad or anxious or trying to “power through together.”
The best commercial of the year is Match’s “When Satan Met 2020.” This spot works so well because funny in the face of absurdity is powerful—and because they made a choice to go bigger and not be COVID-specific, allowing the spot to cast a humorous umbrella over all of the hellish absurdity that was our lives in 2020. Rather than attempt questionable-taste COVID humor, this campaign takes 2020 by the horns (pun intended) using humor to break the monotony of 2020 COVID commercial suckiness. We could all use a laugh right now, and Match’s clever campaign delivered. Paired with great art direction, make-up, humorous story line, and a T Swizzle music track—it’s a perfect match.
— Tara Powers, VP, Creative Director, Art, Elevate Healthcare
Farfetch’s “Open Doors to a World of Fashion”
Historical events have a profound effect on artistic output. In 2020, COVID-19 was not the only catastrophic tidal wave on society. But it was singular in reach. The impact of this moment on literature, film, or any other type of art is still too formative, but we’re seeing emerging themes as brands leveraged the moment to build and maintain stronger connections with their audiences. Family, security, and heroism along with isolation, longing, and fear are words that populated creative briefs this past year. Brands reassured and thanked us. They hinted at a return to normalcy. What else could they do?
Farfetch, a global fashion e-retail platform featuring more than 700 boutiques and customers in 190 countries, is well-positioned to thrive in a COVID-19 environment. In 2020, they wrapped their arms around a world in flux and catwalked into the unknown with the launch of the audacious “Open Doors to a World of Fashion” campaign, a celebration of everything that has been borne out of these trying times. Their opening salvo on YouTube includes voice-over lines like “Tomorrow is in conversation” and “No distance seems too far.”
Their multichannel campaign features an exhilarating display of diversity and creativity, with the participation of designers from across the world who used fashion to express and reinforce connection, even as it is challenged by a pandemic. This reaches a deeper part of our humanity than that of the tentative comfort offered by other brands because it ignites not only the desire but the need to move forward despite the fear. We cannot command everything in nature, like the arrival of a virus, but we are masters of our own imagination and our future. It is hope by another name, with a touch of escapism and plenty of optimism for a colorful, stylish, and healthy planet.
— Angelina Sciolla, Creative Director