“Are we all in this together?”: Reflecting on a year of COVID-19 marketing messages

In Spring 2020 the first signs of consumer and marketing messages related to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic emerged. Like the virus itself, such marketing spread rapidly. The words “we’re all in this together”, and representations of such a sentiment, appeared in adverts and campaigns that were intended to invoke a sense of connectedness, community, and mutual care. Brands wanted people to relate to them and to seek comfort in the form of retail purchases during this time of crisis. Hence, taglines that alluded to togetherness cropped up amid the wave of content that companies created in response to COVID-19, including the marketing of supermarket giants Asda, Lidl, Marks & Spencer (M&S), and Tesco. When noticing this I found myself thinking about the relationship between COVID-19, capitalism, and consumer culture.

Although during the COVID-19 crisis brands have worked hard to cloak their capitalist activities in claims of connectedness, community, and care, to many people it is obvious that the main purpose of such promotional work is to keep the soul-grinding cogs of commerce turning. Despite their efforts to sometimes suggest otherwise, brands are not community organisers. They are not at the core of mutual aid and community care. If anything, brands are often a component of the very structural problems that community organisers strive towards dismantling as part of liberationist work. The imagined “we” that brands brazenly construct via adverts that are meant to tug on the heart strings of individuals during the pandemic is a “we” with money to spend. Such a “we” consists of consumption, not care, and profit, not people.

Are the often overworked and underpaid employees of such brands part of the imagined universal experience that they refer to in adverts about togetherness and weathering this storm with each other? Will such brands make meaningful shifts to substantially improve the precarious work and labour conditions of their employees or will they simply stick to surface-level representations of human connection and care rather than enacting change? There is nothing new about commercial organizations with track records of mistreating and exploiting staff arrogantly making sentimental and marketed claims about the experiences of “you”, “me”, “us”, and “we”. However, this does not detract from the reality that companies being so quick to create such crass content during this ongoing crisis was jarring. Furthermore, the way that some brands have implied that everyone has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in the same way is outright inaccurate.

A lot of brand adverts over the last 12 months have conveyed generalizing ideas and assumptions about the work and labour experiences of people during the crisis, as well as their home lives, material conditions, health, and access to the internet and digital technology. Contrary to what some COVID-19 marketing messages insinuate, not everyone has been able to work from or be home during this crisis, nor has everyone been able to communicate with friends and family over platforms such as Zoom. Not everyone has a garden to “workout” in, or the time, energy, or ability to “workout” at all. In other words, there is a considerable sense of distance (literally and socio-economically) between the experiences of many people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such differences, which are distinctly shaped by racism, sexism, classism, misogyny, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and other intersecting oppressions are often glossed over, if not implicitly denied, by brands that insist that “we’re all in this together”.

As I outlined in an open access commentary piece in the European Journal of Cultural Studies on “‘We’re all in this together’: Commodified notions of connection, care and community in brand responses to COVID-19”:

While it is true that the impact of COVID-19 has affected the lives of many people around the world, not everyone is experiencing this crisis the same way, due to structural inequalities and intersecting oppressions…Who is the ‘we’ in the messages of ‘we’re all in this together’, and how might such messages mask distinct socio-economic disparities and enable institutions to evade accountability?

Roughly a year since writing those words, although some of the advertising tactics of brands have changed, much marketing related to togetherness during the COVID-19 pandemic continues to feature on the screens of televisions, computers, laptops, and mobile devices, as well as appearing on the pages of magazines and print adverts in public spaces. Relatedly, in November 2020, GQ Editor Dylan Jones penned a letter on how “[r]etail just became a democracy” and stated that “[o]ur consumer decisions will mean a lot more to us than before Covid”. The invocations of an imagined “we” and togetherness that many brands attempt to depend on reflect their desperation to remain relevant, relatable, and “real”, against a consumer culture backdrop punctuated by dwindling so-called brand loyalty. Still, as Jones puts it, it seems as though many “[b]rands have forgotten that their customers are people and not just numbers”. Perhaps, a more precise analysis of such advertising and marketplace activity is that it represents the fact that brands have always treated people as mere numbers and a means to pursue profit but have attempted to maintain the pretense that they do not through their strategic use of rhetoric (“you”, “me”, “we”, “us”) and (re)presentations that deflect from this.

As we move towards Summer 2021, will signs of brands’ attempts to “(re)present their products, services and themselves as being essential, ethical and invested in people” decline or remain rocksteady? If the history of advertising and consumer culture is anything to go by, as long as capitalism is, unfortunately, alive and thriving, brands will continue to attempt to commodify notions and experiences of human connection, community, and care, especially during times of crisis.

Francesca Sobande is a Lecturer in Digital Media Studies at the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University. She tweets at @Chess_Ess.

Photo by David Clarke.

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