Advertising in the time of coronavirus

Advertising in the time of coronavirus

Even in the best of times, I’m a curmudgeon, bristling with pet peeves. Want to annoy me? Slaughter the English language. In fact, that category is so broad that I’ll have to save it for a multi-part post. Today I’ll focus on a tiny nit: advertising in the time of the coronavirus.


At the start of the pandemic, I gasped at television commercials suddenly rendered tone deaf by the virus: scenes of unmasked partygoers hugging and chugging. Advertisers hustled to reinvent TV spots with contactless everything, but a larger force was at work. At the end of May, the New York Times reported that “the economic fallout of the pandemic has caused companies to slash TV ad budgets by more than 40 percent.” As digital platforms lapped up those leaner budgets, television networks began to offer commercial time at double-digit discounts.


Cheaper ad time opened the doors to sponsors who had skulked on the sidelines of late-night TV. Their pockets deeper with a newly favorable exchange rate, they can now afford prime time or, better yet, a barrage of commercials all day long. And those bargain hunters aren’t about to squander their budgets on high production values.


Chief among the nouveau riche advertisers are charities. Some are legitimate, but their ads irritate me nonetheless. At the top of my change-the-channel list is an ASPCA ad called “Somewhere in America.” You know the one. A slide show of shivering, abused dogs, a nasal narrator: “Right now, somewhere in America, there’s an animal being beaten, and another being locked in a cage — alone and left to die.”

It’s not that I don’t care. I dote on my two rescue dogs. I contribute to animal welfare organizations. The ASPCA devotes 74.6 percent of its funds to its programs, which have helped animals since 1866. But “Somewhere in America” is a full two minutes long, and that, to me, is inhumane. I’ll make a donation when they stop airing that ad.


Kars4Kids is positively zippy by comparison. Its earworm jingle debuted in 1999, followed in 2014 by a TV commercial with kids — or are they cids? — clad in hot pink and black. Is Kars4Kids another good cause raising my hackles? Charity Navigator awards Kars4Kids only two less-than-shiny stars out of four and notes that merely 53.3 percent of its budget goes toward program expenses. In 2009, Pennsylvania and Oregon fined the charity for failing to disclose a religious affiliation — most of the money supports summer camps for Orthodox Jewish youth. In a 2017 compliance review, Minnesota’s attorney general reported that Kars4Kids had been misreporting its car donation proceeds and understating its fundraising costs on tax filings. Bottom line: Kars4Kids is misleading and annoying.


Certainly, charitable organizations aren’t the worst offenders. A woman named Deanna, seated on a suspiciously lumpy outdoor bench cloaked in a fuzzy throw, testifies that Optima Tax Relief saved her life. Maybe it did, but I don’t want to hear about it. Drug pushers pharmaceutical companies kick up their heels with colorful antics to distract from risk disclaimers that include side effects such as death. A leotard-clad woman on a Peloton drenches her elegant living room in sweat.


But the worst should be over soon. No matter what the outcome of the election, I hope never again to hear these words: “I’m Donald J. Trump, and I approve this message.”

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