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We’re ready for the pandemic to end. So are brands.

Brands want to help consumers imagine a post-pandemic world, but they’re cautious about celebrating prematurely.

The famous Times Square advertising in New York.
Post-pandemic advertising is coming up fast.
Miguel Sanz/Getty Images

In early March, a viral campaign from the menswear company Suitsupply provided a brief, harrowing glimpse into our post-pandemic future — and the advertisements that might usher us into it. The featured models were entangled in a web of tanned limbs, touching aggressively and tongue-kissing sloppily. Everyone was scantily clad except for the campaign’s lead man, dressed in a tailored suit. The “new normal,” the Suitsupply advertisement teased, would be sexy, sweaty, and sensual.

The raunchy images set off a frenzy of reactions online, but the campaign’s success at generating discourse led to suggestions that horniness and hedonism might be embraced as brand marketing tactics with the new new normal in sight. Some experts think few companies will be as brash, and instead integrate slow and steady changes in tone when it comes to ads and social media campaigns. Don’t be fooled, though. The summer of 2021 could possibly be the horniest of our lifetimes: We’ve missed the anonymous comfort of dark, crowded spaces and the adrenaline-fueled messiness of a night out among strangers.

According to Sean Cassidy, president of the public relations firm DKC, a CEO of a major media company had told him that “by September, some places will feel like a cross between the Roaring ’20s and the Summer of Love.” Most of us have lived the past year operating under “an abundance of caution”: Just last March, brands (even those we barely have relationships with) were flooding our inboxes with updates about the novel coronavirus, detailing all sorts of safety measures and contingency plans. They emphasized ideas of “community” and “health,” and explained how they were “monitoring” the developing “situation.” Vox’s Rebecca Jennings pointed out how even the fashion brand Reformation, known for sending ridiculously random email subject lines, briefly tamped down its over-eager tone.

As the pandemic became less novel, so did brand messaging. Reformation and the thousands of brands we have parasocial relationships with have returned to their usual antics. This week, I received an email from nuuly, Urban Outfitters’ subscription clothing service, with an all-caps subject line: IN CASE OF FAMILY EVENTS. In case of which family events? My mom isn’t even vaccinated yet! (In an earnings call on March 2, Urban Outfitters said it has seen increased interest in going-out clothes.)

The emails and messages we receive might only become more zealous or carefree. “The tone of paid content will be increasingly optimistic with higher than normal doses of temptation sprinkled in,” Cassidy said. The return to true normalcy is expected to be a slow burn, which leaves more room for error from a public relations standpoint. The timeline for the US to achieve herd immunity is still in flux, despite President Joe Biden’s call to open vaccinations to all adults by May 1. There is no global end date to the pandemic. Plus, economic recovery isn’t a guarantee: Economists don’t expect unemployment rates to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels within 2021. Consumer spending is still being “propped up artificially” through the federal government’s stimulus program, according to Ted Rossman, a senior industry analyst at Bankrate.

The fractured nature of America’s recovery makes it incredibly difficult for brands to shape their messaging. Many might hesitate to emulate Suitsupply’s unabashed horniness, especially since consumers have become more consciously critical, even derisive, toward brandspeak. In lockdown, we spent more time online, and encountered an oversaturation of ad content. And the various corporate solidarity statements and initiatives in the wake of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests weren’t immune to public scrutiny.

“I don’t think we’re going to see a sudden switch from brands. It’ll likely be more subtle and slow when it comes to brands adapting to some sort of opening in the future,” said Jenny Gyllander, founder of Thingtesting, a review website for emerging direct-to-consumer brands. “It’s interesting to see the tone of voice changing. I think we’re seeing more optimism, humor, and bold visuals.”

The “sensuality” of the Suitsupply ad, she added, doesn’t hold universal appeal for everyone’s experiences in the wake of the pandemic. Some emerging brands have fully leaned into the domestic cozy aspect of quarantine, while emphasizing self-care and the importance of home. While Suitsupply’s campaign went viral, it’s uncertain whether the uptick in online attention translated into significant sales, or communicated loyalty or care to customers.

Brand activity during the last year has been overwhelming, and it’s time for companies to shift their outreach, Gyllander said: “In the coming months, I think many will lean towards a hybrid sort of messaging because our lives are not going to quickly return to normal. Most of us will still work from home. Restaurants will still do takeout.”

Gyllander predicted certain themes like connection and hope might be more appealing for a wider segment of consumers. We can safely assume, however, that a subset of quirky brands will capitalize on the tempting thrills of vaccination season. Quarantine has led us — social media managers of brands included — to embrace being “horny on main.”

Consumers have generally been responsive to ads that showcase intimacy and socialization in a post-pandemic future, Business Insider reported. There has been “a giant spike in the utilization of people in intimate photos” in advertising, according to Pattern89, an artificial intelligence ad company. Still, advertisers are struggling to determine which messages are appropriate to lean into, given the many inequities heightened by the pandemic. There’s the added emotional toll and trauma of the coronavirus that can’t be waved away, and it’ll take time for some to enjoy a renewed world where we are free to touch and talk with strangers.

“It has been a horrible year,” Cassidy said. “A lot of consumers want permission to feel a little good, but optimism doesn’t mean recklessness. I tell our clients to avoid any event, stunt, or message that remotely implies any condoning of unsafe, insensitive, or unethical activity under the guise of optimism.”

It’s possible the advertising industry could experience a boom, as it did in the aftermath of World War II. Brands then were selling the American future, one that encouraged people to “overcome repressed desires and encourage enjoyment in consumption on a mass scale,” according to Joseph Malherek, a historian of capitalism and American consumer culture.

It’s tempting to draw historical parallels with the post-war period: Most Americans had sacrificed years of comfort and luxury to contribute to the war effort, and it was the job of advertisers to lure consumers to spend with the vision of a prosperous, automated future. Today, though, we can collectively roll our eyes at the performative sexuality and hedonism encouraged by the wildest ads, since we no longer need them to tell us how to live. We already are familiar with excess. It’s only a matter of time before we can indulge again.

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