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The pandemic ads are getting out of control

The commercials seemed to change overnight. Soon after the NBA season was canceled and Tom Hanks tested positive for coronavirus, advertising began to take on a somber, parental tone. Some of the same companies struggling to guarantee paid sick leave or hazard pay were suddenly here for you in these unprecedented times, now more than ever. A few of these early spots stumbled out of the gate in more complicated ways.

One ad, from car insurance company Safe Auto, injected an unusual barb into an otherwise serious commercial. The TV spot opens with piano music over footage of the Statue of Liberty and soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima, with the American flag superimposed. “We’re Americans. We’ve overcome everything from world war to disco,” reads the voiceover. “And we’ll overcome this crisis too, because surrender just isn’t our style.” The commercial, which appears to equate disco to world war and a pandemic that’s killed more than 200,000 people, has been set to private on the company's YouTube page.

The advertisement still lives on the website iSpot.tv, which notes that its last national appearance was on April 24. After the opening quip, it continues with the company’s adjusted services during the pandemic, which include waiving fees and resuming coverage without penalty. It’s similar in shot composition and voiceover to the company’s “Crisis” ad that’s still active on YouTube and streaming services.

Companies have been walking this tightrope, attempting to maintain advertising revenues during the pandemic when tens of millions are out of work and not buying consumer goods. As one supercut points out, a majority have leaned on the same basic tropes, in these unprecedented times: somber piano music, voiceover recounting the company’s history, similar We Here For You verbiage, accelerating piano music to rev up the optimism. Car insurance companies, which have spent the better part of two decades trading in light absurdity and epic bacon-adjacent hijinks, make the pivot especially noticeable. Safe Auto, while perhaps not as ubiquitous as Geico ads or Progressive’s Flo, has pursued the same sort of tactics before these sober pandemic ads.

Comparing any popular culture to historical events that claimed millions of lives is puzzling, but disco’s inclusion is an especially loaded choice. The genre came to prominence in the 1970s, largely produced by queer and black artists before its inevitable whitewashing as the decade wore on. Pushback has often been laced with racist and homophobic undertones besides pure aesthetic differences. This reached a boiling point in 1979, when 50,000 angry skeptics ascended on Chicago’s Comiskey Park for Disco Demolition Night. Doubling the stadium’s expected capacity, thousands of mostly white punks and rockists burned disco records, damaged the field, and caused other kinds of bedlam, resulting in 39 arrests.

As music critic Sasha Geffen writes in their new book Glitter Up the Dark, the long-simmering distaste that spurred Disco Demolition Night came right as the genre punctured through to the mainstream. “The Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever had brought a vanilla take on the genre to the masses, and the masses struck back against a form of music they considered, likely with some degree of homophobia, to be sugary, brainless pap,” Geffen writes.

We’ve reached out to Safe Auto for comment, and will update this post if we hear back.