In Defense of the Nationwide Super Bowl Ad

February 2015

By now, if you didn’t see the Nationwide child safety commercial during this past Sunday’s Super Bowl, you’ve at least heard about it. It was immediately panned on social media, and a day later many marketing experts say it missed the mark.

I’m not so sure.

Hours after the backlash began, Nationwide PR released a statement that the commercial was intended to start a conversation, not sell insurance. If that is indeed the rationale, I think the insurer succeeded quite well. Everyone was talking about it, and many rated it the worst ad of the evening. This gave it a lot of airplay and ink come Monday.

”The intention of that ad was very good, but it’s just playing with fire focusing on an adolescents’ death in the context of the Super Bowl,” marketing professor Charles Taylor of Villanova University told the AP.

Nationwide executives knew they were taking a huge risk (unlike, I suspect, the makers of Jublia toenail fungus killer, who introduced an unseemly topic during a celebratory moment).  But I bet there were parents who saw the ad and thought momentarily, “Where are my kids right now?” And who will think twice about running to answer the phone during bath time.

Also consider this: How many times was Nationwide mentioned by brand, versus, say, the fan favorite “#Likeagirl” focused on female empowerment. (It was Always, makers of feminine sanitary products.)

My favorite of the evening was the NFL-sponsored spot on domestic violence, another “downer” that didn’t generate nearly enough discussion. If you missed it, it features a woman calling 911 to order a pizza. You’re waiting for the punchline, only to figuratively be punched in the gut. Certainly it wasn’t in-your-face like the Nationwide ad. But the more subtle bait-and-switch approach was highly effective.

It turned out to be a great game, which kept people in their seats (or standing during the last play). And, I think companies who invested all those millions of dollars for a chance to reach millions of people got their money’s worth—even Nationwide.

—Anne