There will not be any dead child commercials broadcast during Super Bowl 50.
At least, there won't be dead child commercials brought to you by Nationwide Insurance this year. Nationwide is taking the big game off. The company issued a brief statement early in the month in response to questions about its Super Bowl 50 advertising strategy:
We are not advertising in the 2016 Super Bowl. Nationwide has historically been selective in our marketing approach around the Super Bowl. This year, we are focused on increasing our support of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and supporting the players making a positive impact in their communities.
That's right: One of the NFL's principal advertisers is skipping the biggest global advertising event on the calendar, even though one of its most prominent pitchmen is also one of the starting quarterbacks.
No Peyton Manning humming odes to chicken parm this year. No Mindy Kaling vamping through a car wash.
Officially, it's because they are choosy.
Or maybe it's because of last year's ad and the fallout from it—fallout that offers a view into the realities of advertising on the biggest TV show of the year.
The ad was a provocative spot for the company's "Make Safe Happen" campaign. It featured an adorable tot imagining the grown-up milestones he claims he will never get to experience: riding a two-wheeler, first kiss, marriage. The audience waits to learn which brand of tortilla chip or SUV will ensure the tyke's dreams come true. Then whammo: The kid tells you he's dead because of a household accident.
…And now we return to the second quarter of Seahawks-Patriots. Don't forget: Katy Perry performs at halftime!
The Make Safe Happen commercial disappeared from airwaves just hours after its Super Bowl debut. It caused social-networking uproar. A few months later, Nationwide Chief Marketing Officer Matt Jauchius, whose department was responsible for the commercial, stepped down from his post.
Jauchius declined an interview request for this feature. The statement quoted in full above is Nationwide's only one on this matter. Advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather did not respond to interview requests about the Make Safe Happen commercial.
It's safe to say that reminding viewers of the most traumatic events in the realm of human experience while family and friends are gathered around plates of Buffalo wings did not turn out to be a great marketing strategy.
Which forces us to guess: What were the folks behind that commercial thinking?
The Ad That Drove Twitter Crazy with Hatred
Dr. Thomas O'Guinn of the University of Wisconsin has written several books on advertising and brand promotion. He has consulted with a wide range of corporations on advertising campaigns. He worked on public service announcements for the American Cancer Society, so he knows that advertising is not always about puppies and horses.
O'Guinn has a strong scholarly opinion on last year's Make Safe Happen commercial.
"I saw it and thought, 'What a dumb-ass idea,'" he said.
"I hate this ad. I hate it on every level. If you want to be a defender of advertising, this is the prosecution's best evidence of why advertising is bad for us. I would rather defend a tobacco ad than this ad."
The professor wasn't holding back.
"It's bad marketing," he continued. "It's bad stewardship of their brand. It's bad for the institution of advertising. And it just doesn't work."
O'Guinn's expert opinion mirrors the reactions of most viewers when the spot was broadcast in the second quarter of the Super Bowl. Twitter erupted with its usual mix of snark and outrage, with celebrities as diverse as Patton Oswalt, Judd Apatow and Ken Jennings chiming in among thousands of viewers decrying the commercial.
Dear @Nationwide: Why didn't you secretly film people watching your dead kid commercial, "Red Wedding"-style? Missed opportunity.— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) February 2, 2015
Exciting game but that Damn Nationwide commercial haunts my dreams and my waking life!— Judd Apatow (@JuddApatow) February 2, 2015
The Seahawks haven't completed a pass but on the plus side I haven't killed any of my kids. #Nationwide— Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) February 2, 2015
The spike in shock and contempt was measurable, like a tremor on a Richter scale. Canvs.tv, a company that measures minute-by-minute emotional reactions to live broadcasts by combing social networks for millions of keywords and hashtags, registered a noticeable increase in negative emotions around 7:25 p.m. Eastern time, when the little tot on the tricycle pulled a reverse-Sixth Sense and told us we were seeing dead people.
Tweets and other social interactions in the first half of Super Bowl XLIX fell into predictable pattern: expressions of excitement, love and surprise, with an undercurrent of hate for rival teams and players that Canvs always measures during major sporting events. But when the Make Safe Happen commercial aired, Canvs recorded an audience spike of 29.9 percent "hate" and 20.6 percent "crazy." Half of the Super Bowl audience was responding negatively and publicly.
Zeroing in on the commercial itself, Canvs found that 40 percent of reactions expressed "hate," 40 percent "crazy" sentiments. A lengthy search of the Canvs database revealed nothing—no sporting event, political debate, you name it—that provoked quite such a reaction.
So the Make Safe Happen spot briefly overshadowed the game itself. In one way, that's precisely the point of a Super Bowl commercial. The goal is to get attention, and with advertisers spending millions to clutter the screen with bells, whistles, cute animals and beautiful people, the best way to get attention is to appeal to the emotions.
"In the attention economy, emotion is the $100 bill," said Jason Damata, founder of Fabric Media and expert on marketing and advertising in the era of social networking.
But stirring emotions and getting attention is not the same thing as getting your message across.
A Textbook Case of Bad Advertising
You have probably heard the following two tenets of advertising before: a) Any publicity is good publicity, and b) Fear sells.
Neither, according to the experts, is completely true.
"Scare advertising" is practically as old as advertising itself. From patent medicines of the 19th century making outlandish claims to prevent imaginary illnesses to toilet paper companies of the mid-20th century warning women about the danger of getting hemorrhoids from the wrong brand, advertisers have long known that fear is a powerful motivator for consumers.
"It's not used very much now, but it's as old as the hills," according to Dr. William O'Barr of Duke University, an expert on advertising history.
"This is the kind of ad that would have typically run in the 1950s to tell women they were terrible mothers," he quipped. "That's where they reached back from: the Mad Men era."
During the Super Bowl, the target audience is more likely to be fathers, who are still more demographically likely to both be focused on the game and responsible for family insurance decisions. O'Barr said that a fear appeal to fathers as providers and protectors pushes some of the same male emotional buttons as images of sporty cars or foxy models.
"The Super Bowl is all about heartstrings and testosterone," O'Barr said. "If you are not a good provider, if you don't take care of your kids, it doesn't matter how masculine you are in other ways, does it?"
Recent research reveals, though, that too much fear is a bad thing.
"What happens when you create a lot of anxiety, like when you are taking a test? You screw up the test," O'Guinn explained. "You don't remember anything. When you overload people's brains with anxiety, with thoughts about their own mortality or their children's mortality, do you think for a second they are even going to pay attention to Nationwide, or anything?"
The textbook Advertising and Integrated Brand Promotion, co-authored by O'Guinn, lists a set of do-and-don't bullet points for fear or anxiety-based advertising, from both an effectiveness and ethics approach. Here are the do's:
• Moderate levels of fear appear to work the best.
• You must have a plausible threat to motivate consumers.
• You must have a completely clear and easy-to-discern link between the threat and the use of the advertised brand.
The Make Safe Happen campaign clearly flunks this textbook quiz. The loss of a young child hardly provokes a "moderate level of fear." The threat is plausible, but vague: Household hazards are myriad, but complex and, sadly, sometimes unavoidable.
Worst of all, the "link" is almost totally absent. Manufacturers of emergency-contact devices for the elderly or makers of identity theft prevention products (both of whom often use anxiety to sell their products) give consumers a clear path to a solution: Call this number and we'll make sure grandma can push one button to get 9-1-1 or weirdos can't hack your credit card accounts. But insurance cannot save a child's life, and the Make Safe Happen spot only sent viewers to a website full of safety tips that a) can be found on many parenting blogs and b) can't really be acted upon during the second quarter of the Super Bowl.
As for the concept of "any publicity is good publicity," the Nationwide commercial clearly generated media attention well beyond its reach as an advertising spot. (Heck, we are talking about it now). The metrics tabulated by the advertising analysts at iSpot.tv showed a large Monday bounce in page views and searches for the Make Safe Happen ad, and the commercial became a midday talk-show topic across the media landscape.
But the bounce wasn't that big. Geico's Salt 'n' Pepa spots, goofy ads featuring hip-hop legends and not a whiff of controversy, generated more web searches the next day than the Make Safe Happen campaign, according to the iSpot.tv analytics.
Damata thinks people were more interested in talking about the Nationwide spot than actually reliving it. "It's like an accident. You drive by it once, but you don't turn around," he said.
More importantly, the "any publicity" model only works for low-risk, low-involvement purchases, according to the research. It's one thing for a light beer or laundry detergent to try to stick in the mind in any way possible: The concept of mind-share advertising kicks in when we are just tossing items in a shopping cart.
But "insurance is not a low-risk purchase," said O'Guinn. "Insurance is a high-involvement purchase. People don't buy it walking through the supermarket."
Instead of associating their product with household safety and prudent parenting, Nationwide baffled and depressed Super Bowl viewers. For O'Guinn, it crossed the line from bad advertising and bad taste to dubious ethics by terrifying parents (many of whom are already anxiety-ridden enough) with images of bathtub drownings and cleaning-cabinet poisonings.
"Advertisers, given their voice, have some social responsibility to at least be good citizens," O'Guinn said. "This wasn't good citizenship at all. I think it was cynical and stupid."
Perhaps that's why Nationwide is distancing itself from both the commercial and the Super Bowl itself.
The Death of the Death Campaign
The Make Safe Happen spot aired a total of nine times, according to iSpot.tv. It ran once at 7:25 p.m. Eastern time during the Super Bowl, then eight times across NBC's The Today Show, Fox and Friends and Hannity on Fox News Channel, CNN Tonight and CNN Headline News. It appeared for the last time at 4:55 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday morning after the Super Bowl on Fox News Channel's The Five and then vanished from the airwaves forever.
By contrast, Nationwide's other commercial, Invisible Mindy Kaling (the writer-comedienne eating ice cream from the carton in a supermarket, etc.) aired 3,993 times through June 2015, on dozens of networks, during everything from Lifetime programming to Weather Channel updates.
The previously mentioned "Jingle Games" campaign featuring Peyton Manning ("Chick-en parm, you taste so gooood") had a total of eight airings during the four divisional-round NFL playoff games and several times during the championship round.
Nationwide is one of the NFL's core sponsors. Yet it is taking the Super Bowl off.
Sure, the Make Safe Happen campaign was never supposed to be cute and catchy like the Kaling or Manning spots. It was clearly designed to be more of a targeted advertisement. But it has become the advertising equivalent of nuclear waste, something all parties want to bury deep, deep underground.
There are historical precedents for advertisers trying to make toxic campaigns disappear. O'Barr recalled a Kodak camera campaign from the 1920s now commonly referred to among advertising experts as "The Death Campaign." It showed a grandfather and grandson holding a photograph with the caption "That was the last time dad was with us," and other macabre images designed to scare consumers into buying cameras to capture lasting memories of loved ones.
Kodak's "Death Campaign" only lives on in the pages of books about advertising or photography history. The advertisements, which were pulled so quickly that images proved impossible to find, are relics of a primitive era in advertising when companies couldn't use cognitive research or consumer analytics (and sometimes refused to use good sense and taste) to determine where to draw the line. The Make Safe Happen campaign was like a living fossil, but it too is facing extinction and deep burial.
Experts predict that most advertisers will steer clear of anxiety advertising at this year's Super Bowl, fearing a Nationwide-level backlash.
"It almost got to a point where people were like, enough, already," said Peter Daboll, CEO of ad analytics firm Ace Metrix, in an interview with NBC News.
Prescreened Super Bowl ads feature mostly lighthearted fare. It's a different kind of anxiety advertising: Advertising agencies and CMOs are anxious about keeping their jobs.
Meanwhile, Make Safe Happen itself lives on. The American Red Cross recently joined Nationwide's advisory panel for the promotional campaign. Together, they will fight to install smoke alarms and prevent household drownings. Those are exemplary causes that aren't well served by association with shock advertising tactics.
Nationwide issued a statement hours after last year's Super Bowl clarifying that "the sole purpose of this message was to start a conversation, not sell insurance," and noting that "preventable injuries around the home are the leading cause of childhood deaths in America. Most people don't know that." Unfortunately, most people still don't know that, because they were too busy recoiling in terror to review the family fire safety plan. The messenger overwhelmed and nearly undermined the message.
"This did not save any lives," O'Guinn said. "This probably made some people go have a couple more drinks."
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.