Walmart & Uber’s TV Ads Praise Frontline Heroes. But How Much Are Companies Helping?

Just this week, a Walmart store Worcester, Massachusetts was ordered to shut its doors after 23 employees tested positive for COVID-19. The closure was prompted by an April 28th inspection by the City of Worcester Division of Public Health found that neither employees nor customers were wearing protective masks or gloves.

Meanwhile, the latest spot from the Bentonville-based company features employees, filmed via cell phones at home, singing the Bill Withers classic “Lean on Me” in support of first responders.

Whether the company is actually helping those workers slow the spread of the virus is another question altogether.

The non-profit group United for Respect, which tracks COVD-19 cases at Walmart, alleges that the megastore giant is not enforcing the social distancing guidelines, as well as not providing sufficient safety equipment, hazard pay, or paid sick leave — all the while keeping employees in the dark on the number of workers infected by the virus.

In fact, health and safety conditions have gotten so bad at Walmart stores across the country that employees are planning a walkout on Friday, joining workers from Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Target, and FedEx.

Much like Amazon, Walmart’s stock price is at an all-time high amid the coronavirus, which has driven people to stock up on basic necessities and eliminated much of the retail competition. 

The average Walmart associate makes $14.26 per hour; in response to the pandemic, the company awarded temporary pay increases of $2 an hour to associates and paid out one-time $150 bonuses to part-time employees. In March, the retailer saw sales skyrocket 20% compared with the same period in 2019, a year that saw the company take in $20.569 billion in operating income. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon made $22 million in 2019; the company’s top six executives made a combined $112 million.

The company’s external-facing efforts to fight the virus and assist frontline workers is largely tied to the federal government’s slow and thus far inadequate response. As of Monday, Walmart had opened just 20 drive-through testing clinics around the country; teamed with Salesforce and State Farm to provide 1 million masks, 100,000 gloves and 100,000 shoe coverings to health workers in Michigan and Louisiana; donated 50,000 masks to health workers in New York; and gave 3600 leftover masks to workers in California.

The Walmart ad is part of a new trend in “heartwarming” coronavirus-themed TV commercials. While many companies have pulled back on their advertising, worried about bottom lines and identifying with the pandemic, others have reworked messages to fit “these uncertain times.” 

The tragedy ad template includes a few key stock phrases, images of empty streets, a montage of first responders, quarantined people in their kitchens, and stirring piano music. The message: We’re all in this together. 

Whether that’s true or not is another matter. According to an investigation by the progressive media outlet The Young Turks, many companies running these ads, including Bank of America, are lobbying Congress to limit the rights of employees who get sick at work, eliminating corporate liability.

Uber, which has been hammered by the pandemic, has invested millions in emphasizing its troubles and turning them into a PR advantage with a new coronavirus-themed ad campaign.

The tagline, “Thank you for not riding with us right now,” promotes social distancing, but also suggests that the company and its drivers are simpatico. But Uber considers their drivers “independent contractors,” which means that they go without the benefits of full-time jobs. The average Uber driver makes between $8.55 and $11.77 an hour, does not receive health insurance, and it took the pandemic for Uber to finally offer their drivers sick leave, though it is still limited to those infected with COVID-19 or requiring self-quarantine.

Earlier this week, Uber suggested that it would be cutting its workforce by around 5400 jobs, or by 20 percent. 

On the charity initiative front, Uber has pledged 10 million free rides and deliveries of food for frontline healthcare workers, seniors, and people in need around the world. Food banks, cities, and other organizations were invited to contact Uber to work out the specifics.

Meanwhile, down the road, Dunkin’ pledges that “We’ve Got Your Back” in its new coronavirus-pegged advertisement.

You can faintly hear a piano in the Dunkin’ ad, which salutes those heroes that are keeping America running. They share that responsibility with Dunkin’ retail location employees, who make roughly $10 an hour.

Dunkin’ franchises 100% of its locations. In March, the company announced reduced hours and service limited to take-out and drive-through at all US locations; some have since closed indefinitely. According to its website, on March 19, the Dunkin’ Brands temporarily extended payment terms for royalties and advertising fees for their franchisees in the U.S. and Canada to provide them with more financial flexibility. It also offered franchisees the option to reduce hours of operation to provide relief to employees and allow extra time for deep cleaning.  

 Dunkin’ is offering a number of promotions and grants to healthcare workers and charities. That includes a free coffee and donut to healthcare workers on May 6th, National Nurses Day, and $1.25 million in emergency funding to support health relief and hunger organizations. The company brought in $1.37 billion in revenue in 2019.

State Farm observes in its new TV ad that “we’re all living the new normal” and asserts the insurance company is here to “make this new normal feel a little more normal.”

With customers facing hardship and not using their cars, State Farm is offering a $2 billion dividend to its Mutual auto insurance customers, which includes a 25% reduction in most bills. The company also says that it is donating “millions” to relief organizations.

As for employees, last month, State Farm changed the company leave policy in response to the coronavirus. Employees will be granted paid administrative leave if they are awaiting COVID-19 test results or caring for someone who has tested positive for the virus.

State Farm has also made every effort possible for employees to work from home.

Budweiser was one of the early adopters of the coronavirus ads, with the Anheuser-Busch-owned beer brand producing and releasing a TV commercial that salutes “America’s everyday heroes on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis” by mid-March. 

The ad was effective; alcohol sales are booming during the coronavirus, particularly beer sales as people are stockpiling booze in their homes.

The ad promotes Anheuser-Busch InBev’s move to redirect $5 million of its sports and entertainment marketing budget to the American Red Cross to support the fight against the pandemic. Budweiser is helping the Red Cross in its effort to convert sports stadiums into testing centers. The company has also been making hand sanitizer, a different kind of alcohol-derived product.

Walmart & Uber’s TV Ads Praise Frontline Heroes. But How Much Are Companies Helping?