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Food Advertisers Say It’s Okay to Laugh Again

Brands like M&M’s, Smirnoff, KFC, and Doritos have all released humorous ads in recent weeks to win consumers back

A triptych featuring (from left to right) a bucket of KFC chicken; the yellow M&M in an upscale kitchen, wearing a chef toque and covered in smears of chocolate as he attempts to make M&M brownies; and a man with a beard, holding a tiny piece of a Dorito in his palm. Screengrabs from KFC’s “KFC is back!” ad, M&M’s “Genius” ad, and Dorito’s “The Last Doritos” ad

The 30-second ad opens on Red, Yellow, and Ms. Brown sitting (voluntarily isolating?) in a luxe New York apartment. Red and Yellow express amazement at the amount of fudgy flavor packed into the new Fudge Brownie M&M’S. Ms. Brown, the spokeswoman for the new flavor voiced by Vanessa Williams, blasély acknowledges the “genius” of the invention, while Yellow (the Joey Tribbiani of chocolate candies), voiced by J.K. Simmons, points out how difficult it is to get a brownie inside an M&M. The ad cuts to a kitchen where Yellow desperately fails to recreate the flavor using various cooking tools as havoc overtakes the kitchen.

The ad, titled “Genius,” launched on May 4 on social and two days later on TV, where it appeared during episodes of Family Guy and Jersey Shore. The product release was months in the planning, but it arrived in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The promo spot, and the decision to move ahead with the new flavor, was a signal from Mars Wrigley, the maker of M&M’S, that it’s okay for consumers to indulge in candy and laugh at a funny commercial, even during a deadly global crisis.

Throughout March and April, advertising took on a different tone. Airtime was filled with “disastertizing,” with every pizza chain and food delivery company competing to signal the most solidarity with front line workers and struggling communities. Beginning in May, though, a number of major food brands returned to lighthearted, low stakes advertising, with ad dollars following the emotional curve of the pandemic and giving consumers what they wanted, but didn’t have: a sense of normalcy.

Some advertisements even seek to satirize the so-called new normal of their audience, many of whom have been sheltering in place for months now. In the UK and Ireland, an ad featuring sad quarantine recreations of KFC set to Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” tells viewers, “We missed you, too, but we’ll take it from here,” signaling the glorious return not only of buckets of fried chicken but the brand’s characteristic, tongue-in-cheek advertising, too. “The Last Doritos” shows a homebound man savoring his final chip until the next grocery delivery refreshes his stockpile. Diageo’s star-studded #HangoutFromHome Smirnoff campaign features Diane Guerrero, Megan Rapinoe, Laverne Cox, and Dave Bautista at vodka-fueled summer bashes (filmed pre-virus, now with new voiceovers) urging consumers to patriotically stay home instead of attending parties like the one on screen. To integrate more into the home, MoonPie released a snarky Alexa skill to keep quarantiners company and Heinz produced a diabolical all-red puzzle to keep consumers busy.

“If they’re advertising differently, it sets the tone for what they want their brand to mean,” says Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at market research agency NPD. “With more people opting to shop online, it’s harder to get that impulse purchase so there’s still a need for these companies to make themselves known and to tell consumers, ‘Hey, we’re here for you. We have that stress relief you’re looking for.’”

Seifer says NPD saw an uptick in snack food sales at the end of March, as consumers shifted from stocking up on essentials to treating themselves to quarantine treats. Two months later, ad messaging caught up, just as some states are loosening lockdowns and attempting the return of (some semblance of) normal life.

While humorous food ads offer much-needed emotional release from the mass ennui experienced by consumers, the commercials run the potential of undermining vigilance against the virus. While disastertizing ads are problematic because they tend to co-opt a collective grief for financial gain, they at least reinforce messages from public health authorities to take the pandemic seriously. Those experts continue to warn Americans that a premature return to normalcy could re-spark the coronavirus’s spread, but their voices are increasingly drowned out by government leaders who prioritize the economy over epidemiology. Large food manufacturers like Mars often identify with lighthearted branding, so it’s not surprising that the company would push ahead to recover business — but consumers might get a different message.

The M&M’S ad hits the right balance; it’s funny without being crass or careless about a tragic and dangerous situation. Yellow’s kitchen scene is familiar to anyone who has attempted a too-ambitious recipe during lockdown, and the tagline “no baking necessary” might sound pretty appealing after baking a fifth loaf of sourdough. “M&M’S is all about fun and brightening consumers lives and the delicious Fudge Brownie product and humorous communications hopefully do exactly that,” a spokesperson for the brand tells Eater. “We’ve had a lot of anticipation for new M&M’S Fudge Brownie and the colorful fun nature of the ad felt right.”

Regardless of snack brands’ advertising tone, the demand for products is unlikely to wane. Seifer points out that even as some states reopen, schools and summer camps remain closed, leaving parents with energetic kids in need of feeding. People flocked to comfort foods during the Great Recession, he says, so snack and alcohol brands may continue to see increased sales should the pandemic morph into a long-lasting economic downturn.

Expect plenty more culinary hijinks from Yellow, Red, and Ms. Brown.

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