Some brands succeeding during the COVID-19 pandemic have an unlikely but common theme: doom. Movies like “Outbreak” and “Contagion” have topped quarantine viewing lists while a dystopian-themed survival video game, “The Last of Us Part II,” set a launch sales record.
It all fits with American’s pandemic pastime of “doomscrolling” and “doomsurfing,” where people obsessively view content about the coronavirus. This is a countertrend that coexists with the more dominant pattern of Americans seeking comfort in their TV viewing choices, according to an early June Ipsos TV Dailies survey featured in media edition of What The Future.
It found that about two-thirds of more than 4,900 Americans across age groups surveyed seek the comforting TV fare in favorite old shows like “Friends” and “The Office.” But at the same time, it found that a significant 44% of Millennials and 42% of GenX-ers led all adults in saying they can’t get enough of doomsday movies.
“We’ve seen that for some people there’s something comforting about watching movies or playing games that feel COVID-19-adjacent,” says Andrea Marker, senior vice president, head of Content + Platform Strategy at Ipsos. “It allows people to compare and contrast their experiences and gives them a semblance of control over a time in which none of us feel like we have any. That’s ultimately what gives us comfort as people – control.”
While there’s no accounting for taste, a new study theorizes that horror fans and those who are morbidly curious can cope better with the pandemic. “Horror users tended to have less psychological distress,” Coltan Scrivner, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Chicago and one of the study’s authors, told New Scientist.
Asserting control factors into both sides of the behavioral coin, be it comforting food and content or horror content and violent videogames, says Micah Goldfarb, a Ph.D behavioral scientist and senior account manager Ipsos Behavioral Science Center. “We know that on most days, we shouldn’t have that mac and cheese,” says Goldfarb. “But in light of the pandemic, we can rationalize deserving a treat. We’re looking for justification to boost our mood so we’re more apt to give into our comfort tendencies.”
By the same token, seeking out disturbing content also asserts control by letting us release our anger, fears or frustrations on a tangible target or enemy, explains Goldfarb. “We find it frustrating when things lack a clear causal explanation, which is heightened in a time of global uncertainty. By doomscrolling, watching a pandemic film or playing a survival videogame, I’m subconsciously creating a scapegoat and an outlet for my frustration so I can be mad at that awful news story or scared by the horror movie and not by this invisible disease keeping me locked in my tiny apartment.”
Even if some people’s sensibilities veer to the dark side, capitalizing on it is a tricky path for entrepreneurs and marketers to take. Famed Chicago restaurant Alinea found itself in controversy after its rooftop pop-up restaurant served a coronavirus-inspired hors d'oeuvre. It was a problem made worse with news days later that the restaurant closed after a staffer tested positive for the virus.
While other restaurants around the world also have created COVID-19-themed menu items, some called Alinea’s canape tone-deaf, while others found the amuse-bouche amusing. Such gallows humor also reigns in pandemic-themed products on Etsy and Amazon.com. Many of those products rely heavily on the dynamic of shared trauma or shared hardship and “owning” the moment.