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The Case Against Getting Back to Normal

There were times it seemed impossible, but 2020 is finally, finally behind us. A new year is here, bringing so many reasons for hope. And with that hope comes a sentiment that we at the Ad Council are hearing a lot: “Maybe one day soon, we can get back to normal.”

We cannot allow that to happen.

It’s clear what people mean when they say this. They mean they want to go into a grocery store without fear. They want to go to the movies and go to dinner and live their lives as they once did. They want to picture their children back in classrooms, back to being kids. They want to be able to visit their friends and hug their relatives.

But here’s the thing—as 2020 led us from one extreme hardship to another, it laid bare the inequities built into every corner of America’s institutions. We saw all the ways that housing, employment, and other systemic disparities led to COVID-19 disproportionately harming Black and Latinx communities. We gained a more visceral understanding of what food insecurity might have felt like for those who were experiencing it even before the pandemic. We saw the police murder George Floyd. And Breonna Taylor. And so many others.

None of these issues were new. They were always part of this world that some people say they want to return to—part of the quote-unquote “normal” world.

Which is why we can’t go back. Normal isn’t good enough, and it never was. As the Ad Council has prepared for the year ahead, as we continue our COVID-19 efforts and we launch our unprecedented vaccine-education initiative, one of the key guidelines that has framed our thinking has been: We must not get back to normal.

And it’s not just the word “normal” that’s the problem. It’s also the word “we.”

Look around, and you’ll hear it everywhere right now. Everyone has a plan for what “we” need to be doing this year. “We must put aside our differences,” they say. “We must come together.”

Well, who is the assumed “we” in “we must put aside our differences”? Who exactly should do this? Should the grocery-store worker set aside her need for a living wage? Should the Black mother set aside her fear for her son’s safety in the face of ongoing police brutality and systemic racism?

Of course not. Many of the most difficult issues Americans face aren’t “differences” to be put aside in the name of compromise. And how we talk about these issues can make all the difference in whether we put ourselves in a position to make real progress. So if we’re being honest with ourselves—there’s that “we” again—many of us are guilty of using “we” as shorthand for “Americans,” when we’re actually speaking about, or to, or from inside a much narrower group—CEOs, maybe. Executives with privilege and relative security. Politicians. The marketing industry. White people.

At the Ad Council we’ve long had a saying that we have to meet people where they are. When creating public service campaigns that have the potential to save people’s lives, we’ve learned it’s not just about getting the information to the target demographic. It’s about creating a message that will resonate with them. If the message is preachy, didactic, inauthentic or worse—if we’ve been careless with even our seemingly simple words—we miss our moment to build connections and create lasting change, before we’ve even been able to start the conversation.

And we believe that’s an important lesson for all of us to carry into 2021. As we—Americans—move into a year when so many of us have a greater understanding of what others have been going through, we also move into a year when we can harness that understanding, we can reconsider how we speak to each other, which will inform how we help each other, and we can do this not to go back to normal, but to reimagine, to reform, to rebuild something new in 2021. For each and every one of us.


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