Nationwide “Controversial” Superbowl Commercial – Genius or PR Disaster?

Without question, the most talked about commercial during this year’s Superbowl, was Nationwide Insurance’s spot which featured an adorable little boy talking about all the things he would never get to do because he would never grow up due to an accidental death. Backlash of the ad was swift, with many taking to social media, particularly twitter, to express their outrage.

The backlash was significant enough that Nationwide felt compelled to issue a public statement, addressing the controversy. In it, they, among other things, stated that their goal was to “build awareness of an issue that is near and dear to all of us – the safety and well-being of our children.” So was the commercial a massive PR disaster for Nationwide or a genius marketing move? I choose to err on the side of genius marketing move and here is why:

1. It made an impact and in a crowded sea of Superbowl ads, was remembered. Now I know some will say, “but not for the right reasons” and I have never been a component of any publicity is good publicity. However, in this case, I do think sparking a reaction, even maybe some negative ones, was good. Because this wasn’t a negative reaction due to offending any group, being culturally insensitive and the like. It was a reaction borne from seeing something that was too real, too dark and too depressing. The reason I say this is a win for Nationwide is because as they noted, the ad wasn’t about selling insurance but raising awareness of their “Make Safe Happen” campaign which seeks to reduce and eliminate preventable childhood accidents. And in my opinion, the topic of child safety is not one that’s light and fun – it is very serious and maybe even a little depressing having to think about the possible dangers that can affect one’s child. So I did not think the tone of the ad was out place with its purpose.

2. The ad, while sparking outrage from some did inspire dialogue about and create interest in the topic and campaign Nationwide is running in collaboration with other child safety organizations. As noted in their public statement, there was a significant increase in visitors to the campaign’s official site which is certainly a positive for Nationwide.

3. While yes, the theme was morbid, Nationwide is an insurance company, which means the theme is hardly at odds with their business/industry. Certainly insurance doesn’t automatically equate to death but the whole purpose of insurance is to serve as a form of protection in the event of an accident or something negative happening to an individual or someone they love. So once again, the tone and theme was not really at odds with the overall image and/or mission of the organization.

4. As I noted in my first blog entry, good PR essentially involves the art of good storytelling and good storytelling includes presenting something that is memorable and compelling which is exactly what this ad was. As outraged as some people were, the ad caught and held their intention enough to stir some meaningful reaction within them.

5. Finally, Nationwide was smart to respond very quickly to the backlash rather than ignoring it and to do so in a polite, clear and concise way. They stood firm in their decision to create and air the ad, explaining clearly what their goal and intentions were, while recognizing and expressing understanding for and not minimizing the feelings of those bothered by the ad.

For creating an ad that sparked conversation, stirred a reaction, created significant media buzz and was memorable in a sea of very predictable fare, Nationwide came out a PR winner in my opinion.

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