Is it the Super Bowl, or is it the #brandbowl? Depending on what moved you to watch last Sunday’s game, you were either rooting for the Seahawks, the Patriots or for the best ad on TV, the last of which a growing attraction for the 114 million to sit in front of a TV each year. Since the Super Bowl has such a captive audience, its ads cost a pretty penny—$4 million to be exact—and advertisers each year are under pressure to think of new and creative ways to captivate The Big Game’s audience and ultimately win us over as consumers.
While some ads were noteworthy, and some just plain sucked, one in particular was not just bad, but demonstrated what happens when advertisers go too far with the content they create. This ad was with Nationwide, and I think shed light into the power of social media, the power of authority in advertising as well as an important fact advertisers should remember when they choose to air controversial ads.
For those who missed the Nationwide ad, it was clips of a kid, well, being a kid. Or was it—because the kid at the end explains they were actually dead all along, a victim of an accident. This probably sounds ridiculous as a textual translation of a 30 second commercial, but the idea is that Nationwide was sharing the statistic that the leading cause of death among children is accidents. According to Politifact, the statistic is “mostly true,” and was responsible for 6,455 deaths among those 18 years or younger in 2013. Nationwide ultimately defended its decision to create such an ad, arguing it was making others aware of this issue, advocating the hashtag #makesafehappen for families to be considerate of their children’s health and safety (“Nationwide Super Bowl ad claims accidents are leading cause of death in children,” 02.03.15).
Many Super Bowl viewers did not respond positively to the ad. A great thing about social media is its power to offer a spontaneous way to communicate with others in similar situations. Responses ranged from support of the ad to complete outrage. It’s not fun watching sad ads on TV, and many used the Nationwide hashtag on Twitter to go as far as even mock the insurance company, and mock the child who explained they were dead. Any quick search of #makesafehappen on Twitter reveals the extent of the discourse, now not just on Twitter, but prevalent in major magazines such as Fortune and Adweek too.
As it turned out, Nationwide didn’t just speculate such a negative backlash, but expected it. In a NBC News story published that evening after the Super Bowl, the ad agency that produced this controversial ad had an in-depth explanation about the events leading up to the ad’s publication. In a way, this coverage was less so much news as it was a blend of public relations and marketing. Nationwide knew this ad would polarize viewers, so they took up the opportunity of an exciting news story to talk about their thought process and justification for the advertisement.
I don’t want to focus this column on whether or not it’s right for people to appropriate an ad that mocks the idea of children being victims of accidents. I don’t want to focus on the ad’s own backlash either, but instead point out one specific concern I have had in the wake of this. It’s about the identity, purpose and trust of a company that chooses to place an advertisement. Nationwide is, for those who don’t know, an insurance company. They sell auto insurance, homeowners insurance, as well as life insurance. I think it’s particularly noteworthy that a company advertising the importance of preventable death sells insurance in the event you die accidentally. This is about the fact that Nationwide is a for-profit company, advertising an issue that should be reserved for not-for-profit advocacy.
An ad about the importance of safety around children is one thing. It’s an entirely different thing to be a profit-bearing agency communicating this to an audience to sell your brand, not the safety of others. Sure, Nationwide’s efforts may help prevent deaths, but to make an ad appropriating this issue is wrong. It’s also something that’s entirely different if you are a not-for-profit advocacy firm.
A great example is another ad from this past weekend’s Super Bowl, which addressed the issue of domestic violence. It showed a very explicit ad recreating an instance where someone called 911 to report domestic violence as if they were ordering a pizza. This organization, No More, does not profit from this ad they produced in collaboration with the NFL. Their interest is exclusively to prevent instances of domestic violence, not to sell life insurance. Whether or not you like that it was an ad on TV, there is a significant difference in authority between these organizations and their advertisements. One is showing a phone number where you can get support if you need it and the other is trying to elicit and emotional response with no explicit call to action.
I’m not going to make a stance that it was a good or bad ad, or that it’s right or wrong to support the ad or vilify it. What I’m getting at is that advertisers working with for-profit companies ought to be more self-aware of what they are advocating. To take an issue that I’m sure is a very big deal to thousands of families each year and promote your brand around it is, to me, concerning. I do think brands and companies can support issues like preventable death and advocate for organizations that work towards it. However, Nationwide is not doing this; they are using the issue to exclusively profit their brand and no other third-party or not-for-profit association.
Nationwide’s website, makesafehappen.com, doesn’t explicitly state they will donate to not-for-profits when you buy a policy. The project’s plan is to raise awareness, but also to put Nationwide’s brand before those of not-for-profits who have been advocating to help prevent accidental deaths. Nationwide does practice corporate citizenship, but this advertisement—the key word being “advertisement”—has nothing to do with these efforts. Nationwide’s usage of this issue so directly to promote its brand is distasteful and ought to be criticized.
This also is a reminder to advertisers: Brands advocating for serious issues need to seriously remember that they represent profitable companies. If you’re making money off the issue and not giving money to a not-for-profit, you better be ready for the backlash.
—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.