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: