By now you’ve heard about the largely negative reaction to Nationwide’s Super Bowl ad promoting its Make Safe Happen campaign to prevent children from dying in preventable accidents. Digital marketing firm Amobee Brand Intelligence found that two-thirds of the insurer’s mentions on social media were negative, according to Business Insider; Nationwide had more negative mentions than McDonald’s had total mentions!

I am the father of a three-year-old boy and a four-week-old girl, so when the commercial started – with no indication who the marketer was -- I said to my wife, “Yikes, this is depressing. This isn’t going to go well for whoever this is.” Then the Nationwide N with Eagle logo appeared on the screen, along with a hashtag: #MakeSafeHappen.

After the shock of the commercial’s narrative wore off, I remembered that the company had planned a big multimedia campaign around this message. In fact, I had downloaded the Make Safe Happen mobile app for a potential story on non-policy-servicing mobile apps in the industry. You’ll be happy to know that the app is simply a room-by-room checklist of ways to make your home safer and won’t ruin your Sunday night.

Eventually, negative sentiment on social media – some of which used the hashtag, some of which referenced the company’s corporate Twitter account, de-evolved into jokes of questionable taste, and the boy with the dark, messy hair even became a meme (Sample caption: “I was going to run the ball from the one-yard-line, but I died.” Take that Pete Carroll). But early on, what really raised viewers’ ire is that they would have to explain the ad to their young children. One imagines that kids who might have been sitting near a flat-screen television didn’t appreciate the image of a smashed flat screen on a living room floor.

CNN reporter Richard Quest sat in on the meeting with Nationwide CMO Matt Jauchius and executives of Ogilvy & Mather in advance of the Super Bowl, as the team debated what approach to take with the ad. In the video, Jauchius calls the selected commercial “approachable.” Quest calls it “upsetting.”

That may point to a difference between insurers and the public at large, says Ken Hittel, who formerly ran social media for New York Life.

“One of my mentors, who became a trainer and marketing exec at New York Life, would accompany her new agents out on sales interviews. When invariably the new agent would say, ‘If you die,’ her boss would correct it to ‘when you die,’” Hittel relates. “Insurers tend to see death as much less of an unmentionable.”

In fact, the time around a tragedy is often a time when insurers are involved in their customers’ lives. That is, of course, when events cause claims. Hittel says that when the New York Life foundation would run Twitter chats to discuss children’s grief related to the loss of a loved one, “the good stuff was pretty brutal stuff.”

But those chats were somewhat curated, Hittel says, with professionals in place to assist the conversation. Turning a disturbing message loose on the greater majority of American consumers – and their social media accounts – is a risky proposition.

“Everyone wants to take advantage of the Super Bowl, but it might not have been the right venue,” Hittel says. “We’re trained to expect humor from Super Bowl commercials. When you’re waiting for the punchline and it doesn’t really come, the cognitive dissonance kicks in.”

But that wasn’t a concern for Nationwide. Jauchius told Quest that the Super Bowl allows the company to reach “an eye-watering number of people who are singularly engaged on your message.” And Nationwide itself, ever-cognizant of the social storm brewing (I interviewed Jauchius in 2013 and he said that Nationwide had plenty of capabilities for social and customer analytics in place), put out its own statement late last night.

“We knew the ad would spur a variety of reactions. In fact, thousands of people visited, a new website to help educate parents and caregivers with information and resources in an effort to make their homes safer and avoid a potential injury or death. Nationwide has been working with experts for more than 60 years to make homes safer. While some did not care for the ad, we hope it served to begin a dialogue to make safe happen for children everywhere,” the company said.

That statement shows Nationwide is taking the right next steps, Hittel says. “There’s no reason you can’t embrace negative comments and say, ‘We started the conversation, and now is the time when we’re going to tell you how this hashtag will be instantiated,’” he says. 

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