#BecauseIDied: Just Because You Know Something Will Go Viral, Should You Still Do It?

The Super Bowl is the biggest game of the year, both for football and Madison Avenue. A well designed ad means weeks of residual brand resonance for the client, and, hopefully, increased sales or campaign awareness. In the age of social media, a Super Bowl ad going viral with instant reaction is the jackpot. In most cases, come Monday morning companies long to see a tweet or online article like this:

Unless you’re Nationwide Insurance.

One of the most talked about ads during and well after the Super Bowl was Nationwide’s 45-second “Boy” spot, depicting a cute boy describing all of his dreams, achievable or fantastic, only for the audience to find out near the end that the boy was dead all along. He had been killed in what was described as a “preventable accident.” The commercial was designed to promote Nationwide’s “Make Safe Happen” campaign. The reaction was instant and fiercely critical.

As with most things having to do with internet 2.0, responses to the spot quickly trended snarky. Social posts began pouring in almost immediately after the ad aired and continued to mount, even once Malcolm Butler became a regional folk hero. Those who saw it were seemingly trying to counterbalance it and infuse the humor that is typically customary for the Super Bowl – yet noticeably lacking this year.

When asked by the Wall Street Journal if Nationwide expected the reaction it received, Matt Jauchius, Nationwide’s chief marketing officer, said “We absolutely knew there was going to be a reaction where you had strong feelings both ways. The initial negative reaction from the social space was a little stronger than we anticipated, but we absolutely anticipated that we would cause a conversation.”

They were so aware of what was about to happen WSJ reported Nationwide set up a command center to monitor the social media conversation.

Amobee Brand Intelligence reported 238,000 social media posts related to the Nationwide “Boy” spot and labeled 64 percent of them negative.

The comments continued well into Monday. So much so that the mainstream media picked up the story and ran with it.


Based on the intense response, Nationwide released a statement shortly after the game ended attempting to clarify its goals for the spot.

“Preventable injuries around the home are the leading cause of childhood deaths in America. Most people don’t know that. Nationwide ran an ad during the Super Bowl that started a fierce conversation. The sole purpose of this message was to start a conversation, not sell insurance. We want to build awareness of an issue that is near and dear to all of us- the safety and well being of our children. We knew the ad would spur a variety of reactions. In fact, thousands of people visited makesafehappen.com, a new website to help educate parents and caregivers with information and resources in an effort to make their homes safer and avoid a potential injury or death. Nationwide has been working with experts for more than 60 years to make homes safer. While some did not care for the ad, we hope it served to begin a dialogue to make safe happen for children everywhere.”

In response to Nationwide’s statement, mainstream outlets joined the internet’s snark party. Phil Rosenthal, columnist for the Chicago Tribune, wrote “If you look at a chart of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stats from 2012… unintentional injuries are in fact a leading cause of death of children from their first birthday on. And by ‘from their first birthday on,’ the chart is talking about a long way on. Like all the way into their mid-40s.”

While I don’t disagree with the conversation Nationwide wanted to have, I have some serious problems with the way the company chose to start it. The audience for the Super Bowl is large and extremely diverse. The mood is supposed to be festive. While there is a place for semi-serious or sentimental ads (of which there were more than a few this year), it’s not really the place to hit the audience in the face. In fact, Nationwide failed to account for that viewer diversity and the potential for unintended consequences.

Many of the posts I saw related to “Boy” spoke of parents who had lost a child, saw the ad and were immediately ripped back into their personal hell. It’s a shame, when Super Bowl Sunday is supposed to be a night where people who have lived through such a tragic and traumatic experience can use this national tradition to try and put aside their sadness, if only for a few hours. Nationwide’s stark 180 at the end of the ad was abrupt and off-putting. It almost insinuated that a parent’s lack of care is the reason these kinds of accidents happen. It would seem unwise to publicly shame and horrify those who would normally be your best advocates on such a massive stage.

But to me, Nationwide’s biggest offense was their competing messages during the Super Bowl. Nationwide said that their goal with “Boy” was to start a conversation, not to sell insurance. But they certainly kept selling insurance front and center with their second Super Bowl spot featuring comedian Mindy Kaling. At the same time they were trying to correct the response to “Boy,” Nationwide continued to promote their other super bowl venture:

If you’re going to start such a serious conversation, you can’t have that conversation and still try to talk about your business pursuits on the side. Nationwide’s greatest sin was its refusal to set aside business objectives for the night in order to responsibly have the conversation it wanted to have about its preferred public interest topic.

Nationwide knew exactly what it was doing with “Boy.” They made it jarring in order to spur public reaction and generate a viral response. They wanted the reaction more than the conversation. Yes, they got “thousands of people” to go to the website they created about preventable accidents, but that was out of hundreds of millions watching. That’s not exactly a fantastic success rate. Instead, hundreds of thousands took to Facebook and Twitter to decry Nationwide. How does that further your objective? It doesn’t, unless your real objective is to promote yourself with whatever kind of publicity you can get.

I’ll give the last word to Jake Fogelnest, who I think summed it up best:


  1. Great post! Very well thought out and insightful. I will have to disagree with you to a certain extent, however. Although the commercial is unlike most other Super Bowl commercials, Nationwide took a risk that seems to have paid off. Nationwide decided to show a commercial that did not have a dog dancing, a person falling, or a celebrity embarrassing themselves and I respect them for it. Of course they used this commercial as a publicity stunt and to generate a viral response. Isn’t that what every marketer wants these days?

    The fact that they may have educated thousands of people on how to prevent these deaths far outweighs the sadness they may have inflicted on a select few. Nationwide used this platform to get a message out on a topic they care about to a nationwide (pun intended) audience. While generating a viral response, they also supplied a social good. I would argue if they saved one life, this campaign was a success. In a way, they were being socially responsible, while also increasing their brand awareness. Although I was also upset by the commercial, I respect Nationwide for attempting to educate the public and taking a risk with a multi-million dollar spot.

  2. Thanks for the note on my blog post! I really enjoyed your take on the issue as well, and I don’t disagree at all with the more cynical approach that you took with the commercial. The perspective I tried to take with the commercial was that Nationwide knew exactly what they were doing and my goal was to tease out perhaps the longer-term incentives that made them okay with such a radical approach. One thing that I did not mention in my post was that it seemed as if the Mindy Kaling commercial was simply a smokescreen for the “Boy” commercial. Most brands seem to offer teasers and hints at what their Superbowl commercial will be, and Nationwide did that only with the Mindy Kaling commercial. The “Boy” commercial was meant to blindside and it absolutely did.
    But to your point, it does not necessarily means that it was the right thing to do. Your point about the commercial subtly blaming parents for their children’s death especially during a festive event such as the Superbowl is in incredibly poor taste. The BI link was incredibly tragic, and was something that sat uncomfortably with me even as I wrote my own post trying to take an opposite approach with the commercial. Perhaps the campaign will be successful, and perhaps not, but when the dust settles there will still be questions that are unanswered. Regardless of its success, should companies engage in these aggressive, emotional shock and awe haymakers? And if it is successful, is it a slippery slope for brands to start developing even more traumatic advertisements?

  3. Very well-written and stated post! The tweets and quotes from outsides sources that you brought into the post really added a depth of credibility and professionalism. While I agree with your position on a surface level – that the somberness of the ad may not have been appropriate for the occasion and that it seemed to be a ploy to just go “viral” – but I also agree with Winston in that I believe this ad was a calculated effort to generate buzz. The people of Nationwide KNEW this would cause them to go viral and they definitely knew that all of the reaction would not be positive.

    Additionally, in reaction to your point about how this ad could have been difficult for parents who lost a child – while I agree with that, this was not the only ad guilty of doing so. The Nissan ad that featured the father and son growing up was no doubt difficult for people (specifically males) who lost a parent growing up. There is no way to be attentive to every single person’s needs or areas of sensitivity.

    All in all, this was a really good blog post, and you made all valid points. I believe that it is not as simple as saying Nationwide was in the wrong here. It can be said that they “won” the Super Bowl commercials, which was probably their main goal at the outset.

  4. There is no way that Nationwide was just trying to promote the issue of preventable deaths. They featured two very unique and distinct ads during the night of the Super Bowl targeted at different audiences. Any company that spends $8 million on a 60 second ad and is expecting 300 million people worldwide to see it is acutely aware of what people will think about it. The production quality of both commercials resembled a well directed short film! I agree with you 100% that the team over at Nationwide took a calculated risk deciding to go with the commercial expecting for there to be heavy online traffic generated because of it.

    Similar to the evening news phenomenon, “If it bleeds it leads”, the majority of viral social media topics are negative or offensive in nature. Because Nationwide was able to steer the conversation in a direction of something positive (we need to prevent accidents like these) yet keep the fiery tone of the commercial, they could increase brand awareness without sacrificing a lot of brand integrity. Great blog post!


  5. I really enjoyed this post. I agree, Nationwide clearly knew that their controversial ad would draw reactions, comments, and more importantly attention to their brand. Despite Nationwide responding and saying that the point of the ad was not to sell insurance, they did certainly throw themselves in the national spotlight and in the wrong way. You shouldn’t attempt to make the most memorable Super Bowl Ad by depressing your audience. This ad was jarring, and I don’t think it was for the right reasons. If someone wanted to raise awareness around something as sensitive as preventable deaths, there shouldn’t be an alternative motive to benefit your company or create profit. This message would be a public service announcement, not a commercial for life insurance. Nationwide tries to associate your kid’s safety with it’s brand, and it was done in poor taste.

  6. Great post! As the days after the super bowl have past, I find that my opinion regarding Nationwide’s spot keeps changing. I understand and respect that the company was trying to start a conversation, but I also think that the conversation that we’re having is about the actual commercial and not about preventing accidents like the ones mentioned in the commercial. I also don’t know that it was the right time or place to air such a heavy advertisement; however, would it have garnered so much attention had it aired on the nightly news? I’d venture to say that it would not, so in terms of viewership, airing it during the super bowl was best. At the same time, as mentioned by the father in the Business Insider article, the super bowl is something fun that distracts so many of us from the bad things happening in our lives. Did the company not think about how insensitive it would be to parents who have lost children, especially those who have lost them due to in-home accidents? I would have liked to see them air a warning before the commercial, nothing that it may be disturbing to some viewers for the following reasons, etc etc.

  7. This one is probably worthy of class conversation (assuming, that is, if we ever have class again). I’m not a marketer, but I’ve heard the phrase “any publicity is good publicity.” We are certainly remembering and talking about Nationwide long after any other commercial.

  8. meganvtom · ·

    I really enjoyed reading both your blog post and also our classmates’ comments. It was interesting to hear from multiple angles. I have mixed feelings about this commercial. Initially after viewing it, I had the same reaction as many others, something along the lines of, “…oh… well that was really depressing…” However, upon reading your further analysis of the ad, I understand Nationwide’s intentions. Although I automatically viewed it as a poor marketing choice (see my tweet at the time of viewing: https://twitter.com/meganvtom15/status/562081390867795968), I can see Nationwide’s unconventional method of education. I think the main issue I have with the ad is that it is not completely clear to the public that the ad is for educational purposes. I think the intentions get a bit lost within the fact that it is an insurance company, especially considering the preceding Mindy Kaling commercial, as you and many others have mentioned. A question that remains unanswered is whether the negative response to the commercial will negatively affect Nationwide’s brand and performance and whether these will be counterbalanced by the positive impact the ad was intended to have.

  9. Nice post. While I knew people were disturbed about the ad, I didn’t think about the many viewers that would have a personal reaction to it due to their own tragedies. This situation reminds me very much of Facebook’s “Year in Review” misstep (read about it here). While it seems like an obvious suggestion to check an advertisement from all points of view, brands often fail to do this and pay the ultimate price due to the social nature of platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

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