Why Is the Nationwide Ad Causing So Much Controversy?

Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



Nationwide’s “Make Safe Happen,” featuring a chubby-faced young boy recounting all the things he wouldn’t be able to do or experience in life because he died in a preventable accident, outraged viewers and commentators -- some called it the worst Super Bowl ad to ever air. It even spurred the creation of #NationwideKills on Twitter, with users commenting on the ad, uploading memes, and even making light of the ad’s line, “I couldn’t grow up because I died from an accident.”

What you can’t contest is that it was the most-talked about ad in a game where emotional advertising ruled the event -- Budweiser’s “Lost Dog,” the many dad-centric commercials, NoMore.org’s domestic violence ad, and “Like a Girl” from Always all fought to tug at the heartstrings of the 120.8 million viewers who tuned in, making it the most-watched TV event in U.S. history.

Brands wanted to make you tear up, feel nostalgic, and question stereotypes. And viewers seem to be fine with advertisers using creative methods to control their emotions.

The problem occurs when you remind people -- who are sitting in front of a game stuffing their faces with chips, dips, and wings -- of their children’s mortality and their own role in it. The ad is jolting, with cinematic shots of an adorable boy who utters one line that should wake up any viewer preoccupied with Super Bowl festivities.  

The other problem people voiced is that the ad was a buzzkill. Viewers have an expectation of being entertained during the Super Bowl. The Half Time Show (featuring dancing sharks, fireworks, and a robotic lion), the ads (toenail clipping on a plane, a polar bear losing out in the draft to an avocado, a “Brady Bunch” spoof), and the coming together of two top teams to battle it out for the winning position: This is the definition of sit back, relax, and ignore real problems.

The main question is not whether this was a bad ad. The reason this ad has caused so much outrage is that Nationwide chose to remind viewers of tragedy during a time when all they wanted to focus on was cute puppies and the scoreboard. Air the same ad during an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and like any ad, some people may still hate it, but it would not have been called a buzzkill.

This issue leads to a larger conversation about the current state of advertising.

People can skip past ads on their TiVo. They can install ad blockers. They make choices about the type of ads they want to see on Hulu. They can sign petitions and convince a company to refrain from running a controversial ad in the Super Bowl. Viewers and visitors feel they have a certain amount of control over what ads they see, and they felt that this was the wrong place and time for confronting reality.

And that’s exactly why the ad worked so well.

Bill Bernbach is famous for saying, “You can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut.”

In a time when the control balance tips to consumers, maybe it’s not just about how you say it, but when and where.

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