Know Your Audience: Nationwide's Super Bowl Commercial

Know Your Audience: Nationwide’s Panned Super Bowl Commercial

How many of you watching Super Bowl Sunday said to yourselves “What’s with all the depressing commercials this year?”, or had someone else say it for you?

Super Bowl Sunday has essentially been a national holiday for years, a time when friends and family can get together, watch a (hopefully) good football game, catch some funny or inspiring commercials, and enjoy their time together.

When you’re advertising to a diverse audience of 114.4 million people, at a cost of up to $4.5 million dollars per 30 second slot, for this year’s Super Bowl commercials, knowing your audience is critical.

Nationwide’s “Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up” Super Bowl commercial, made to showcase their Make Safe Happen program, is by far the most outrageous example of brand disconnect and this year’s dramatic (sometimes downright depressing) ad trend:

Contrast that with their Make Safe Happen Program Video (which I only came across thanks to YouTube autoplay):

The amazing part to me is the difference between the two in tone and messaging. If you swap out 30 seconds of the program video with the overwhelmingly panned “Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up”, it seems you could have powerful, direct messaging to parents and bring plenty of attention to their new program, just as Nationwide states was its aim.

Instead, you have a video that feels practically deceptive, with a playful beginning hiding more serious messaging, and morphing into our buzzkill of the night: he couldn’t grow up, the boy tells us, because he was already dead.


The response to their Super Bowl ad was so negative, Nationwide issued a press release on their website that same day:

“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, 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.”

Yes, Nationwide, you got people talking. But is any publicity really still good publicity? The overwhelmingly negative response only detracts from a potentially good program and conversation, and keeps the focus away from where it should be.

Was the potential long-term damage to your brand worth treating us as if a pretend dead child was the best way to start a meaningful conversation?

What Could Have Been

As of Tuesday night, their “Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up” video had 5,040,974 views, versus 66,340 for their Make Safe Happen program video. It may not be a perfect measure, but the difference in feedback is enormous as well: over twice as many downvotes to upvotes for the commercial, versus over three times the upvotes to downvotes for the program video.

Yes, I am sure (or at least really hope, given the cost) thousands of people (out of the 114.4 million viewers) clicked through to your website.

But how many more could there have been if they had truly tried to raise knowledge and start a conversation about a serious issue, rather than scaring and upsetting viewers into talking about it?

I just hope Nationwide’s promising Make Safe Happen program doesn’t pay the price for their missteps.


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