A lethal pandemic and widespread unemployment have coincided with a tense presidential campaign and nationwide unrest.

For the advertising industry, that means opportunity.

“If history has taught us anything, it’s that we can get through anything — and that beer sometimes helps,” actor Paul Giamatti says in a Coors Light commercial.

The narrator of a commercial for Firstleaf, a subscription wine club, echoes the sentiment: “We’re going to need a lot of wine to get through this year.”

Those commercials are part of an onslaught of ads promising relief in a stressful time.

Online advertisements for Moon Pals, a line of plush-toy animals with big, doleful eyes, promise “deeper sleep,” “better cognitive functioning” and “reduced anxiety.” The company’s marketing materials inform potential customers that the arms of the stuffed Moon Pals creatures are specially weighted, so that they are able to give “hugs that can save the world.”

Vitality Extracts, a company that sells elixirs and trinkets, promises to “lift your mood and relieve tension.” Its Stress & Anxiety Bundle includes a tiny bottle labeled Stress Away, which contains a “pure essential oil blend,” and a pair of “calming and anxiety bracelets.” At $50, the bundle is sold out.

Advertising

Procter & Gamble says it can “turn the stressed life into your best life” in recent ads for StressBalls gumdrops, whose ingredients include ashwagandha extract and valerian root extract. Nature’s Bounty, a wellness company, promises a way for its customers to “find peace” in new ads for Stress Comfort gummies, which include ingredients such as gamma-aminobutyric acid, melatonin and lavender extract.

Roman, a New York company that offers treatments for conditions such as erectile dysfunction and hair loss, is advertising stress relief capsules that it says are “backed by science.” An unnamed user of Roman products featured in its marketing materials claims: “This company has changed my life.” But Roman acknowledges that some ingredients of its products, like rhodiola rosea, have “yet to be extensively studied in the USA.”

Stephanie Van Stee, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who specializes in health communication, advises consumers not to allow stress to overwhelm their skepticism. “You need to be looking at these advertisements critically and do your research to make sure you know what you’re getting into with some of these things,” she said.

An image provided by Moon Pals shows a scene from one of the company’s online advertisments. The ads for Moon Pal’s line of plush-toy animals promise “deeper sleep” and “reduced anxiety.” (Moon Pals via The New York Times)
An image provided by Moon Pals shows a scene from one of the company’s online advertisments. The ads for Moon Pal’s line of plush-toy animals promise “deeper sleep” and “reduced anxiety.” (Moon Pals via The New York Times)

During a time when more than 180,000 people in the United States have died of COVID-19 and millions have been put out of work, nearly one-third of American adults have reported signs of anxiety or depression, a significant increase from a year earlier, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last month. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that of the millions of workers who have faced pay cuts or layoffs, more than half blame the pandemic for damaging their mental health.

Public service messages geared to a newly vulnerable population started appearing in the spring, with commercials from the Advertising Council, a nonprofit group. In one campaign, entertainers including Meghan Trainor and Addison Rae encouraged teenagers to connect with friends; in another, creators on TikTok like Jaci Butler and Parker James shared tips on how to handle isolation.

Advertising

Those messages were followed by a flood of ads for sleep aids, mental health apps, remote therapy services, prescription drugs, potions and tinctures.

Calm, a meditation and sleep app, spent an estimated $15.6 million on TV commercials from March through August, up from $3 million a year earlier, according to the research firm iSpot.TV. The company’s spending on Facebook nearly tripled over the same period, according to estimates from the advertising analytics platform Pathmatics. In a Calm ad that has appeared on Instagram, actress Eva Green reads a bedtime story, “The Magic Hotel,” by the “sleep story” author Christina Yang, in her breathy alto over the gentle strains of a piano.

Headspace, another meditation app, spent $27.3 million on a recent television campaign that reached viewers an estimated 1.9 billion times, according to iSpot.TV. “This crisis is affecting all of us,” the narrator says on one commercial. “Our mental health is suffering, but most of us just don’t know how to deal with it. But we can try, with tools to help look after our mind.”

The digital ad agency Playbook Media is testing messages for Mellow, an app in development, which shows users images of paintings as a calming device. “There’s a market opportunity to capitalize on the current moment,” said Bryan Karas, Playbook’s chief executive.

Spending on ads for antidepressant medications on traditional platforms has also gone up slightly, rising to $76.8 million from March through June from $75.6 million a year earlier, according to the research firm Kantar. Trintellix, an antidepressant medication, has eight ads on Facebook, according to Facebook Ad Library.

Marketing budgets have expanded greatly for companies offering remote mental health counseling, according to data from iSpot.TV. A commercial for Talkspace, a therapy-by-text service that has faced concerns about client privacy, features swimmer Michael Phelps. “It’s OK to not be OK,” he says, “and it’s OK to ask for help.” Ads in this area include new ones for Lemonaid Health, Plushcare and other therapy providers.

Advertising

The cannabis industry has also been stirring demand for products with the potential to soothe. Companies focused on CBD, or cannabidiol, spent nearly $4.3 million on ads from March through June, more than five times the $798,000 they spent a year earlier, according to Kantar. One such business, Green Roads, tells customers: “These days it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Just take a minute.” Charlotte’s Web CBD has noted on Instagram that “feeling anxious can be an understandable response to many of the stressful events life throws at us, especially during a pandemic.”

Regulators have cautioned CBD companies against overpromising. The Food and Drug Administration cracked down on ads pitching CBD as a pandemic treatment that can “crush corona.” The Federal Trade Commission warned Patriot CBD against making misleading statements like: “When your body is chronically stressed, your immune system suffers. With the spread of this potentially deadly coronavirus, stress will be high … consider CBD Oil.”

Janelle Applequist, an associate professor of advertising and public relations at the University of South Florida, said the appeal of ads promising solace was likely to continue.

“What’s scary about right now is that we’ve been cooped up for so long, and the day-to-day has become so difficult, that it’s very tempting to see an ad for a drug and think that it might bring release,” she said. “We’re talking about people feeling serious financial pressure, social anxiety, loneliness.”

She added, “This is almost a recipe for disaster.”