In late March, the entertainment mogul David Geffen took to Instagram to share how he was coping with COVID-19 lockdown. His pictures showed his yacht cruising in the Caribbean. One caption: “Sunset last night…isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus. I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.”

Quickly, Geffen faced a backlash on social media. Amidst the devastating health and economic consequences of the outbreak, the multi-billionaire’s posts struck many as tone deaf. Within days, from aboard his 138-metre vessel (purchase price: $590 million), Geffen had deleted his Instagram account.

Nobody wants to seem out of touch with their public pronouncements during this pandemic. Which is why marketers are treading lightly. Still, even the most well-intentioned messages can grate.

I wrote a short post about this last week on LinkedIn. It must have struck a nerve because it had more views, by far, of anything I’ve ever posted. So I wanted to just follow-up with a longer take.

For the most part, companies are avoiding any advertising that smacks of business as usual. Or that appears to be taking advantage of the situation. Many businesses are using their ad space to describe their precautions, or what they’re doing to donate to those in need or otherwise serve the public good. All admirable.

Then there are the feel-good messages. You’ve seen them. They all sound the same. The ones that say something like “even when we’re apart, we can stand together”, or “we’re never lost if we can find each other”. Or that remind us (like one HGTV Canada ad) that “we’re all in the same boat”.

No we’re not.

Some people are much better equipped than others to get through these tough times. Do you have a secure home and job? Are you in decent physical and mental health? Do you have space to safely recreate? Do you have the resources to keep your children engaged?

If so, then you’re not in the same boat as the families who have lost all their income. Or kids with learning challenges who’ve missed out on critical supports. You’re not in the same boat as the person living in long-term care. Or those living with psychological distress. You’re not in the same boat as people whose health is compromised, or who are vulnerable and marginalized at the best of times.

Jack Daniel’s ran an ad that showed people finding creative ways to stay social at a distance, and raising a toast too. Everyone looked happy to be chilling. Good for them. But for many people, this crisis isn’t the backdrop for a cute lifestyle commercial. Not everyone is gliding through quarantine with Netflix and Zoom workouts.

I know the “we’re-all-in-this-together” ads are supposed to be uplifting. They mean well. They can also be part of fundraising efforts. But the imagery tends to revolve around people who are mildly inconvenienced, as opposed to existentially threatened.

No, we’re not all on our own, but we sure aren’t all experiencing the pandemic and its impacts in the same way.

The best way I’ve seen this captured: we’re all in the same storm, but we aren’t in the same boat.

Everyone has different abilities to keep their boat afloat, different skills to navigate the choppy waters, and different support systems and resources to buoy them.

The brand ads that aim to touch our hearts? A piece in Vanity Fair last month described how companies are trying to sell peace of mind now, along with their products.

One marketing professional quoted in the article said the message is really this: “Hey look, we’re a brand and we care.” Another advertising professor said: “Brands are putting out messages right now to bring people together. And people will become a little more loyal to brands that make them believe it’s all going to be okay.”

It will be for many. But not for all.

Whether you find the COVID-19 commercials clichés inspiring or banal, I hope we’ll come out of this with a lot more empathy and, most important, help for those in need and adrift. Their boat and David Geffen’s are oceans apart.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

May 20, 2020

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