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Feel the Blur: The 2020 Year in Review

Of course, this past year was not your average year. It’s not every year you find businesses encouraging their would-be consumers not to buy. Like when Uber made its “Thank you for not riding Uber” commercial, and when Guinness made its “Don’t toast with your friends,” spot. That was the first spot on my review list and, I think, the first official “COVID-era” commercial. Do you remember that one? It came out in March, right as lockdown was hitting America and creating the very first of the many holiday celebration casualties—St. Patrick’s Day. That Guinness commercial hit a sweet note of perseverance and hope. “We’ll get through this together,” they said. “Be safe, be good to each other, and we’ll get back together—stronger—when this is all over.”

I couldn’t help feeling a little pang as I rewatched that spot. Not just because it stirred memories of those first, uncertain days of lockdown when there was naïve speculation that quarantine and the pandemic might be over in a few weeks. It also made me remember that St. Patrick’s day had been cancelled. With all of the crazy things that happened this year, I’d forgotten that we skipped St. Patty’s day and how traumatic it had seemed at the time. And that brought back other memories. Memories of walking the dogs through empty streets, of bars and restaurants boarded up until mainstreet in my neighborhood looked like we were getting ready for the zombie apocalypse.

From that first commercial on, forgotten memories came fast and furious as I reviewed the list. Sam’s Club’s movie-style credit list thanking their workers for keeping stores open reminded me of the grocery store crisis and the national toilet paper shortage. Nike encouraging us all to “play for the world” by working out and training at home reminded me of my health-club closing down and my daughter’s soccer league postponing and then cancelling their season. McDonald’s making a PSA about washing your hands reminded me of when instructions on that basic task were everywhere, including the news. And in addition to the specific ads, there were themes that lots of advertisers were sharing (along with pensive piano music and black screens with white text). Hang in there. We’re all in this together. Try to see the good. We’ll come out of this stronger. Video calls can be awkward…but they’re a thing now.

Some of my forgotten moments were bigger though. The YouTube commercials in June with the high school kids weeping about their cancelled graduations brought my younger daughter’s socially distant, car-parade graduation from middle school rushing back. That had been such a heart wrencher at the time, but somehow, I’d forgotten it. The Macy’s 4th of July commercial reminded me not only that my neighborhood had its first-ever, no-fireworks, no-block-party Independence day since we moved in, but also of the social justice unrest seething at the time. The days and nights of mass protests with masks and signs that showed our support (and also gave one of our family friends COVID) had kind of blurred together and been swallowed by the next wave of crisis—the mass forest fires that turned our skies a weird orange and had us sealing our doors and windows with painter’s tape. And then that got swallowed by the next crisis. And the next.

Reminders of each new phase were there in the commercials. Going back to school? We’ll limp along on video. Birthdays? We’ll wave to our friends through the window. Out of PPE? Nike will make masks and face shields, Bacardi will make hand sanitizer and Ford will build ventilators. Halloween? We’re cancelling that…maybe you can dress up at home. VOTE. VOTE. VOTE. Please, please vote. Thanksgiving? Please, please don’t. And on and on until I finished off the list with a gallows humor commercial for in which Satan and 2020 strike up a romance that plays like a highlights reel of everything that’s gone wrong this year. As it ended, I had to face the fact that way more about 2020 had already faded into a misty gray anxiety than stood out clearly for me.

Do you remember Blursday? It was a joke term that was coined after everyone had to start working from home and it got hard to remember which day of the week it was. Everything just sort of smeared together into an exhausting mess that was both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. If hindsight is 2020, then trying to review the 2020 year in commercials has helped me see that Blursday not only merged the days, but the weeks, the months and events for me. 2020 has been Blursyear, and I’ll be very glad to see it go.

So, Happy New Year to you all! Even if it’s all a blur, even if you don’t remember any of the spots, I hope you remember the messages of the 2020 year in commercials— Hang in there. We’re all in this together. Try to see the good. We’ll come out of this stronger. We can’t wait to see you again when this is all over.

All the best,
Jim, David, Sara and Wayne

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery