Chauncey is an award-winning, NYC-based creative director who specializes in branding and integrated campaigns. Chauncey has worked with companies like Lincoln Motor, Microsoft and New York Lottery to name a few.
How has the pandemic affected you professionally?
Things haven't really changed that much for me; I was already working from home. As the pandemic developed through March, I finished up a big project and picked up more work almost immediately. As much as companies are tightening their belts, I feel very lucky that I've had more or less steady work. In advertising, the one thing I've noticed overall is an unfamiliar sort of off-kilter feeling among just about everyone in this industry as to exactly how we should be presenting ourselves, from pitching new work, to the kinds of messages we're putting out in the world. I like advertising in its most basic form — not tracked clicks or manipulative ad placements, but straightforward messaging that presents something that's hopefully relevant, meaningful or interesting in some way to some audience, and then fucks off.
This is a good time for marketers to tread carefully, and to really take notice as to what they're producing and disseminating. If you're going to talk about 'values,' you'd better goddamn well have some. Consumers are taking note and taking names. I already have a shit list of New York hospitals in mind who have fired doctors and nurses for speaking out about poor working conditions, have failed to provide adequate PPE and done their best to cover their asses with "we're there for you" nonsense while charging people thousands of dollars for an aspirin and a splint. I will not be forgetting that list, and I'm guessing there are many others in the populace who feel likewise about any number of other brands who have failed to rise to this occasion or, worse, shown how despicable they are by dismissing it, mistreating their workers or being oblivious and tone-deaf.
“If you're going to talk about 'values,' you'd better goddamn well have some. Consumers are taking note and taking names"
How has the pandemic affected you personally?
The pandemic really tested — and continues to test — my emotional strength and mental stability in a lot of ways. I've been working from home for more than two years, so that part of it was not new to me. I have an office that's set up exactly the way I want it, so I didn't have to go through any radical adjustments in terms of the way I work. But working from home means that you rely on social interactions with the outside world even more than most people. Just a beer down at the local dive bar or a conversation with your neighbors on the front steps means that much more. I also had a cat until not too long ago, and I had no idea how much stress and anxiety he dissolved just by being in the same room. So, without him and without any opportunity to go outside and interact with other humans, I felt my psyche start to disarticulate.
There were some days in particular when the sirens did not stop from dawn to dusk. Of course, New York tends to have a lot of sirens going at any given time of day, but in this situation, their consistency really got to me. You knew where they were going. You knew why they were out there. All these people, unable to breathe, being loaded onto these ambulances, getting hooked up to oxygen tubes and ventilators, and ultimately dying because there was nothing (and there's still nothing) that could be done for them beyond intubation and palliative care. It was hard to take. The only thing I could compare it to would be an air-raid situation where sirens are going and the only thing you can do is sit at home and wonder if the bombs will drop on you.
“If you're not hyper aware of your position and power within the ecosystem of the American economy at this point, you're not breathing. It's that simple."
Sometimes the sirens got to me and I just broke down. You just couldn't believe that another ambulance was out there picking up another person. There was all this misery and death, and no way to do anything about it. I spent a lot of time reading news, eating miscellaneously and staring with no purpose behind my eyes. It made work seem almost beside the point. I do branding and campaigns, but who gives a fuck about any of that at this point? I would get angry when I saw some company that I'd interacted with maybe ten years ago emailing me about their CEO's response to the COVID crisis. No one gives a wet shit about your precious 'response.' Of course, brands never talk about all the workers they've laid off or the cost-cutting measures they've taken. Shut up and start making masks and ventilators. I don't care about your fucking sale. Interestingly, the brands that I think might have made the biggest impact -- Patagonia, for example -- I have no idea what they've done. I'm assuming they're doing the same sort of socially responsible things they've always done. Just as Amazon did the absolute scummiest things possible, like firing whistleblowers who had concerns over workplace infections and refusing to provide promised sick leave.
If you're not hyper aware of your position and power within the ecosystem of the American economy at this point, you're not breathing. It's that simple. If this experience has provided me with any sort of clarity or perspective, it's that every dollar I spend, every email I write, every decision I make is intimately connected to a web of either positive or negative outcomes - sometimes both simultaneously. But you can no longer feign ignorance about anything. You can either be passively part of the problem or you can act toward furthering whatever values you have left.
My sleep schedule is still fucked. I might be bright awake at 2am or near-narcoleptic at 3pm. There were also other big changes that took place in February that complicated the picture just as the coronavirus situation was taking shape. My wife and I moved into a new place in a new neighborhood, so we suddenly had this layer cake of issues from large to small on top of everything else going on. What did the movers break? How should we set up the bedroom? Where does the recycling go? In retrospect, our naivete was amazing. We went to look for some furniture at the beginning of March, before any shutdown orders, and Manhattan already looked like a ghost town. It seems so bourgeois, going to Crate and Barrel and sitting on couches like Goldilocks when thousands of people are going to be dying within weeks. It just brings home the unreality of this whole situation that we're living through.
I thought things were serious when they canceled the NBA season and Tom Hanks and his wife got it. But looking back, the seriousness of everything didn't truly hit me until my uncle got it. He lived with his wife on a farm in Indiana that was so far out in the middle of nowhere that its address is literally a pair of coordinates with a state and a zip code. Other than church once weekly, they probably interacted in-person regularly with maybe the same five people, and somehow, he got it. He was admitted to a hospital and put on a ventilator, and had hallucinations and delusions, and he died from it. Alone. That was hard to take. My aunt and he had been married for over 50 years. She had to say her last goodbye to him on a cell phone.
“Day to day, if you live in New York, you have a unique experience that's equal parts horror and bewilderment. If you're outside New York, you have no idea."
The brutal indignity of this virus, and the lack of regard among our national leadership for those who have died, are stunning to me. Day to day, if you live in New York, you have a unique experience that's equal parts horror and bewilderment. If you're outside New York, you have no idea. I'm just starting to come out of that with the recently warm weather and a sort of mental acceptance of the new normal. Going to the grocery store is like an episode of 'Watchmen.' You've got panic running through your chest any time you leave the house, you might start crying in the middle of laughing, you've got about ten pounds of excess alcohol weight and your hair and beard look like Rick Grimes.
Behavior is largely situational. Look at the Stanford Prison Experiment: give me three days and I can turn Ivy League honors students into abusive psychopaths. So, you don't really know how you're going to act in a completely new situation until you're in it. And what I learned is that I have a deep well of sadness and despair that is all-too-ready to be tapped into, and if I'm not careful, I'll live in it like Gollum. It's a situation I'm still learning how to navigate.
How do you think this will impact your industry?
For advertising, this is a come-to-Jesus moment. Emotions are running high. Just about everyone has been deeply affected by this. So, what does that mean for an industry that makes money by getting up in your grill with exciting news about products you didn't know you needed? It used to be a mandate that brands avoided any sort of political anything, hewing to a fantasy world where your snack chips or the shoes you wear aren't also a symbol of your ethical barometer. But with the hyper-polarization of politics and the Internet making every corporate decision and policy known to all, it's becoming more and more difficult to pretend to be apolitical or outside of the gravity well of ethical decision-making.
Consumers want to know where you stand, and that's a difficult position to be in for a lot of brands. As Michael Jordan once said, Republicans wear shoes too. But the reality is that people are taking note of who's doing what more than ever before, and the outsized emotional impact of this crisis is going to sear opinions in place. So, where did you stand when the coronavirus hit? Were you sending out 20%-off email blasts or were you converting your factories to making N95 masks? Of course, this cuts both ways — did you embrace so-called 'freedom' and open up your restaurants or did you kowtow to the “libtards” and make your employees wear masks and gloves?
Unfortunately, I think it's going to make advertising even more restricted, careful and unimaginative. There was a brief flicker of a moment where creative was really starting to take off again and get interesting, but I think that's been shoved back down into its hole for the time being. This is almost another 9/11 situation where every word and every frame are going to be scrutinized ad infinitum, and advertisers will be looking to minimize position-taking in all but the most innocuous ways. I hope I'm wrong, but that's been a growing trend over the last 20 years, and a global pandemic causing unemployment on the scale of the Great Depression is unlikely to change that.
“...But now that truth has become immediate, almost confrontational, people's fear and anger are at an all-time high. Now, what are we going to do with it?"
If you had to identify a silver lining, what would it be?
Hmm. That's a good question. Maybe I'm too close to it at the moment because it's still going on, but I'm having a difficult time thinking of a silver lining. There's been so much heartbreak. I suppose the good that's come out of this situation has been the massive jolt of reality that's finally hit the American populace with regard to so much of our own ongoing bullshit: racial, social and gender inequality; the ingrained inequity of our economic and political systems; and the sheer arrogance, ignorance and ineptitude of much of our business and political leadership. Unless you're truly delusional, it's just impossible to bullshit yourself on these matters any further.
People are waking up to the reality that a system that once demanded that you either work like a dog or perish is now demanding that you work like a dog AND perish. The center cannot hold. It was already a death-trap in a literal sense. How many American workers were holding down two or three jobs but barely getting by? How many were terrified of losing the garbage health insurance plan provided by their employer? How many ever believed that capitalism, social media, or the two-party system were ever working to their benefit? But now that truth has become immediate, almost confrontational, people's fear and anger are at an all-time high. Now, what are we going to do with it?