Ad agencies and their TV ads play a major role in shaping public opinion. Focus groups help spot little tremors of upcoming mood swings. Give the message a good shove and the unsuspecting public will make it their own. The not too subtle message now is that the “new normal” is here and it’s time to escape confinement and hit the road.

In February, the ads were pushing the traditional white sales, furniture inventory clearances, and Presidents’ Day car deals.

Until mid-March, our health concern was the flu. Laggards were told it’s not too late for a flu shot. The flu’s final statistics– fall through spring, were grim– 10,171 positive cases and 38 deaths. That didn’t include the Mainers who were taking antibiotics, over-the-counters, or slurping down chicken soup at home. COVID-19 then reared its ugly head and Americans began to die. The ad agencies spun on a dime, delivering a “we’re all in this together” message.

The car makers were the most over-the-top. Their spokespeople pretended to be talking from home via a Zoom-like screen. Very sympathetic, telling us to keep safe and “we’re with you.” A good supportive message, but it soon shifted to,“We can sell you a car without any human contact.” “Buy from us, the first car-vending machine company.”

This spring, during our extended cabin fever, the number of Massachusetts’ plates increased locally. They were our Bay State neighbors who own seasonal homes here. Their K-12 schools had shut down and they felt safer here. We welcome them back each year. June traffic seemed to have arrived earlier this year, no worries, because the turnpike’s Memorial Day weekend traffic count was only 40 percent of last year’s count.

The short-stay rental platforms, polling potential customers, picked up a full-of-promise mood, showing a deep travel yearning for a cottage, near water, and easy driving distance from home. By June, the ad agencies flooded us with escape from sheltering ads. It’s all over and time to break out. The only thing missing was Willie Nelson singing “On the Road Again.”

Their cars were running free in America’s most beautiful places, including majestic forests, but no mention of getting lost, helicopter rescues, or making friends with bears. Cars were cruising through Monument Valley, whose isolation and 100-degree days make it one of the most dangerous places to drive in America. One mistake by the GPS lady in the dash, not enough bottled water, or an empty gas tank, and they’d find your mummified remains next year.

If you accused them of encouraging the breaking of home sheltering, they’d argue that no other vehicles were in their ads, so “their cars were just sheltering at 65 mph on the road.”

Those on the road ads didn’t wish you good luck on finding an open and clean restroom, a virus-free room for the night, or meals that aren’t drive-thru. I did see one ad where the Gecko from Geico met up with Bullwinkle in the mountains.

YORK, ME – JULY 2: South Bound traffic moves slowly on the Maine Turnpike in York Sunday, July 5, 2020. (Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)

Those ads were heard loud and clear and we should have known that New Yorkers and our fellow New Englanders were watching the same escape ads. A game of musical chairs began, except it involved cars and out-of-state plates. Remember those earlier rental agency polls’ findings? Now add “safer” to that list.

April, when pandemic hell was raging in New York City, many New York residents fled to their summer homes on Cape Cod. Others soon escaped on weekends or as in-and-out day-trippers. The Rhode Island governor ordered state police to stop New York cars. Musical cars was now in play and the pattern was established.

Some Bay Staters, seeing orange license plates everywhere, New York TV coverage of refrigerated trailers, and climbing case loads in their own state, packed up and headed early to their summer homes in Maine. Others sought out extended stays with family or friends, or booked short-stay rentals. Many New Yorkers followed the procession north.

Florida plates joined the growing mix of out-of-state plates in Maine. Many of our snow birds had delayed their return dates because of the uncertainty and fear of running the pandemic gauntlet of hot spot states. Many described I-95 as a ghost highway. Their home state and the other two northern New England states had become pandemic sanctuaries.

July 4th weekend, the turnpike traffic count had climbed up to 80 percent of last year’s holiday count. Since then and every following weekend, close to 50 percent of all the cars on our local weekend roads carry Mass plates, while our hotels, inns, and motels can’t fill 50 percent of their weekend rooms because of guidelines.

This musical cars surge appears to crest in York County and spins faster on the weekends. We can’t count on Mainers to complete the circle, because summers you can’t get them to drive south over the bridge, except maybe for short trips to the newly expanded and remodeled New Hampshire State Liquor Store, but no further.

We’ll have to leave the closing of the southbound musical cars’ link to the Massachusetts’ drivers, since they’ve already proven late Sunday afternoons that they’re pretty good at jamming up the turnpike’s southbound exits 3, 4 and 5.

The ad agencies and their clients—car makers and gasoline companies are happy. Sales of SUVs are setting records, gas consumption is going up, and pump prices are steadily climbing. What new behavior changes do they now envision for us?

We’ve now reached a crossroads in this pandemic crisis. If some in our younger generations can’t control their doing-stupid-things behavior — crowded bars, packed beaches, underground concerts, COVID parties, and no masks, this virus will just keep re-igniting.

If we continue avoiding risky gatherings, protecting the high risk groups, keeping our distance, and wearing our masks, we soon could see down the road ads reflecting a new more promising and truthful reality out there.

A reality where we see dads are again dropping off the kids at safe schools and moms are unloading the team and gear for a soccer game. A time again, when parents are heading out on a date night, going to the movies or a romantic dinner at a real indoors restaurant where the waitperson no longer has to wear a mask.

We and our behaviors will determine whether the future will be a continuing pandemic nightmare or our new reality.

Tom Murphy is a former history teacher and state representative. He is a Kennebunk Landing resident and can be reached at [email protected]

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