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“There is no such thing as bad publicity,” a quote often attributed to the supreme American huckster P.T. Barnum, appears to be the third rail that Nationwide Insurance held onto firmly while rationalizing their now infamous and ill-advised Super Bowl XLIX commercial entitled “Make Safe Happen.”
In the spot—which cost Nationwide a reported $4.5 million to produce and air—a pre-pubescent boy muses about all of the things he won’t be able to do because he has…died. The commercial then displays a graphic that warns its audience that the number one cause of childhood deaths is preventable accidents against the backdrop of an overflowing bathtub. The sobering effect of this creative turned Super Bowl-party faces and guacamole grey from coast to coast in the span of its 45 seconds as evidenced by a fault in the blogosphere that—seen from space—would have collectively spelled out “What were they thinking?”
The Nationwide fiasco should serve as a cautionary tale to marketers of the folly of relying on borrowed interest that strays so far afield from the product or service being advertised as to confuse and even alienate its audience. “Borrowed interest” is an advertising device where a marketer resorts to using visuals or messaging that is tangential in order to arrest the attention of the viewer so that they will then take notice of whatever it is the advertiser is selling. With its endless parade of babies, puppies, apes, and frat boy humor, the annual derby of Super Bowl commercials feature a deluge of this approach.
Perhaps the best practitioner of borrowed interest is fellow-insurer GEICO. They will use any means— from cheeky geckos, neurotic cavemen, Ickey Woods, and endlessly clever non-sequiturs—to get you to recall a tagline so omnipresent that their voice-over announcer has ditched it for, “Well, you know.” GEICO’s ceaseless campaign is impression-based advertising at its finest. It is fundamentally designed to get you to recall the brand so that, should you be entering the market for insurance or willing to switch brands, the company is in the consideration set. They can afford the luxury of borrowed interest because their annual advertising budget is an estimated three times that of Nationwide’s $350 million.
So who in the advertising world doesn’t want to be clever like GEICO? The trouble with lesser mortals trying to employ the borrowed interest tactic is that too often, as evidenced by post-Super Bowl polls of popular commercials, viewers remember the gag, but they can’t recall what was being advertised. Can you name the company that shot the gerbil out of the cannon during the first dot-com bubble? Or what was being advertised when the cowboys were herding up computer-generated cats? Neither can I.
Enter Nationwide who boldly elected to employ a borrowed interest theme as far afield from pratfall humor as is possible. But that is exactly where the problem arises. By attempting to “start a dialogue” about unnecessary childhood deaths, they left their audience confused as to what exactly the message was and how it related to insurance—unless you were buying Gerber life insurance. Whereas the intention was to elevate awareness, instead the commercial peddled fear. As anyone who has ever lost a child or known someone who has (and this author has experienced the latter), it is unspeakably wrenching. To run this type of commercial during what is suppose to be a national celebration was horribly misguided.
Each individual is a brand whether he or she is conscious of it or not; a brand comprised of other brands, products and services that align with their values, world view, and how they see themselves occupying that world. Hence, I am MINI driver and prefer Grenson shoes. You might cruise around in a Cadillac and shop at Cole Haan. And, yes, this fundamental principle even applies to insurance companies. Do you revel in the over-the-top humor of Mayhem? Are you a Flo gal? Who’s up for contemplating outliving their child owing to a needless tragedy? Answer: no one. That is where the Nationwide rationale goes off the rails and why, despite being the most talked about Super Bowl spot since perhaps the Budweiser frogs, Nationwide’s market share is likely to, forgive me, croak.
Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Rick Petry is a freelance writer who specializes in direct marketing and is a past chairman of ERA.