The first thing you see, in what must be among the best TV ads of the season, is tumbleweed rolling where no tumbleweed should roll, in the middle of a city street edged with offices and apartments. But then you realize it is largely made up of disposable masks, and the street is howlingly empty. A title card reads, “Sometime in the not too distant future.” In one apartment, an alarm-clock radio rouses a bedraggled man who looks the way bad breath smells. “Good morning, folks, this is W.G.U.M., your stay-at-home radio station.” A piano tinkles hopefully. “And this just in! We! Are! Back! We can see people again! How ’bout that? I can’t believe it! … I can’t believe it!”
And here — to the strains of Celine Dion’s chest-thumping ballad “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” — the ad begins gaining speed, as all manner of coronavirus cave dwellers emerge from their cluttered, crusty homes, leaving a flotsam of half-eaten takeout and spilled breakfast cereal scattered around them. The bad-breath guy swaggers into his building’s hallway in mismatched socks. A young woman in a stained T-shirt and grown-out hair emerges from a jumble of pizza boxes when someone texts her the lines “We can meet NOW” and “RIGHT NOW,” followed by drooling emojis. People begin stampeding in wild, ecstatic droves. A working mother in a litter of toys and unwashed baby paraphernalia sees her online meeting flicker away; she crashes her cobwebbed, leaf-strewn Volvo through her driveway’s gate and into the street, abandoning the kiddos, high-tailing to the office, where she and her long-separated co-workers converge in the lobby like desert people finding an oasis.
This is “For When It’s Time,” a commercial for Wrigley’s Extra gum. It was shot in March in Santiago, Chile, and employed hundreds of actors. According to its director, the filmmaker Nick Ball, it was originally destined for the Orbit brand but accrued such a hot reputation within Wrigley’s headquarters that it was repositioned for a higher profile. Nobody knew quite when it would make sense for the ad to run. But when it was announced that Britain, at least, would be reopening on June 21, come what may, the spot was greenlit. Much to the delight of executives — who, mask breath notwithstanding, have seen a 40 percent decrease in global gum sales during the pandemic — it went viral immediately.
In a way, the ad is a rare bull’s-eye in an arduous year for advertisers, who have spent the pandemic trying to understand the zeitgeist and then race to fit their ads to it before it changes. As the virus first struck the United States, a huge, soppy swath of ads solemnly declared that we were all in this together — you, me and every car company on earth. Then, once we acclimated to masks and Zoom meetings and nonchalantly telling our children “Don’t touch that” 12 times a minute, ad makers were humbled enough to submit to public feeling. Some of the most memorable commercials mirrored the weirdness of pandemic life, like the witty Bulleit Bourbon spot in which a man invites his “new drinking buddies” — household items like a mop, a cheese grater and a light switch that each look uncannily like a face — to join him for cocktails.
The vision in Extra’s ad is the one that’s been steadily gaining currency, and it looks an awful lot like an orgy.
Booze brands, of course, have had a relatively relaxing pandemic, sales-wise. Many other products and services — everything from single-serve snack foods to auto parts to entire Greyhound bus lines — became practically inessential in one fell swoop, leaving marketers discombobulated. An Uber ad imploring riders to stay home sounded a bit like a con. An unctuous 2020 ad for Las Vegas — where annual visitors were down more than 55 percent from the previous year — promised that the most important thing for the gambling hub wasn’t the “shows,” the “neon” or the “bravado” but your safety.
Nobody knows when “sometime in the not too distant future” will arrive or what it will look like. But the vision in Extra’s ad is the one that’s been steadily gaining currency, and it looks an awful lot like an orgy: In the commercial, that giddy gaggle of freed humanity descends on a park and falls into a kind of multigenerational cuddle puddle — a pandemonium of sweatpants askew and unshaven body parts and sprinklers gone wild. These are people who definitely need gum again.
It’s an Age of Aquarius take on what I’ve been shorthanding as “MULT”: Making Up for Lost Time. The message seems to be that while we’ve all experienced the pandemic differently, we will, when it’s over, want to shake it off in the same way: immediately, exuberantly and with near-Vesuvian exchanges of body fluids. If industry crystal balls are to be currently believed, the main tenor of our world post-Covid will be high extroversion: “revenge travel” that resuscitates tourism industries, decadent maximalism in home design, fall fashions that have the words “sequins” and “office” sitting weirdly near each other. We’ve been told, to the point where it feels like a consumer duty, that we are in for another “Roaring ’20s” of spendy debauchery. The idea, gathering like weather, is that we will all run out at once and be more muchly ourselves than we’ve ever been — while treating ourselves to every last product and service that we had briefly learned to do without.
In this I have some experience. In my own life, I’ve known many years of houseboundness, because of a rare illness that sapped me of the spinal fluid needed to properly cushion my brain. Two years ago, this condition was fixed by a miraculous surgery, and for the first time in 15 years, I was able to move through the world with more ease. As soon as I could — this remains faintly embarrassing to write about — I dashed out and bought several pairs of new shoes, in all the styles I couldn’t even think of putting on for so long. I believed I’d wear them all the week I got them and indulged in little fantasies of strutting into rooms, clicketyclack. But I couldn’t wear any of them. My body was no longer used to thin-soled flats or pinlike heels. It took two years of trying — of actual baby steps — for me to walk the way I’d dreamed of through years of confinement.
In the coming weeks, as you are repeatedly encouraged to burst gleefully forth, remember who is helping to light that fire beneath you, stoking your normal desire for joy and ease and freedom of movement. The pain and wisdom seeded by the past year are fragile. They need to be introduced back into the world carefully. I thought about this while rewatching the Extra ad. I noticed how, in that early scene with the man getting out of the rumpled bed, he has a partner on the other side of the mattress, and she stays asleep. I like to imagine her waking up a bit later, making her coffee and observing the ruckus outside her window. While sipping, she thinks she might stay watching from her perch, her same old robe well tied, just a little while longer.
Source photographs: Screen grabs from YouTube