How Nationwide's Dead Boy Hurt Weight Watchers

Diet Marketer's Super Bowl Ad Was Overshadowed On Social Media

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Nationwide's Super Bowl ad.
Nationwide's Super Bowl ad.

The Nationwide Super Bowl ad that was panned for killing a kid might have also played a small role in the premature death of a Weight Watchers ad campaign.

These two seemingly unrelated events are linked. During the second quarter of the game, Nationwide aired its now infamous spot that sought to promote childhood safety with a depiction of a young boy who dies. The outcry on social media was immediate and voluminous. Viewers mocked the spot to the point where it drew an estimated 230,000 social mentions during the game, most of which were negative, according to digital marketing technology company Amobee.

The Weight Watchers ad by Wieden & Kennedy ran immediately after the Nationwide ad. The goal of the spot, which resembled an anti-drug PSA, was to spark a conversation between Weight Watchers members and people who have not yet tried the company's diet plans. But as it aired, people were still talking about the Nationwide ad. Weight Watchers' ad was overshadowed and never gained the online traction execs envisioned.

Weight Watchers has since moved on to an entirely different strategy by another agency, DiMassimo Goldstein, that uses a direct-response approach. Plenty of factors prompted the strategy shift, which comes as the marketer experiences declining membership revenue. But in discussing the change in an interview this week, Weight Watchers Senior VP-Marketing Maurice Herrera, mentioned the Nationwide ad.

The Super Bowl ad was designed to "drive conversation," he said. But Nationwide, he said, "frankly stole the thunder." Beyond that bit of bad luck, he outlined several larger reasons why the campaign, called "Help With the Hard Part," fell short.

The campaign -- including the Super Bowl spot -- sought to portray the complex and emotional relationship people have with food that can lead to overeating. The debut spot that first aired late last year revised the song "If You're Happy and You Know It," by replacing "clap your hands" with "eat a snack." Another ad called "World of Food" portrayed a world in which food is everywhere, real or imagined.

The campaign, Mr. Herrera said was "relatable," but "it was also polarizing." He elaborated: "The emotions that people attach to food [were] very relatable … People could relate to that and felt like it was good for us to talk about that. But for others it was a reminder of something they would prefer not to be reminded about. And more importantly, it was absent of us really helping to resolve that and helping to come up with a solution for how they could move beyond that."

The Super Bowl ad, in particular, contained very little Weight Watchers branding and did not articulate benefits of the marketer's weight-loss plans. It was almost as if the company was advertising the general concept of dieting, without plugging its own brand.

Mr. Herrera said that "relatability will always be a priority for us. But we also need to be a … persuasion-oriented brand. We want to make sure we have that call-to-action as a part of our messaging."

The new campaign by DiMassimo Goldstein seeks to take a "direct-response-meets-inspiration type of approach," he said. The first ad, which is set in a bowling alley, is meant to entice new members by plugging a free "starter kit." The kit includes items such as a "Spring Into Action" book featuring "tips on fitness, sleeping better and preparing healthy meals and snacks, as well as more than $55 in savings on products available in participating meeting locations and in stores," according to a spokeswoman.

A second ad, which debuts this week, uses a remake of the Queen song "Another One Bites the Dust" and is meant to portray the positive feeling that people get when they first start losing weight. The end of the ad plugs an offer called "Join for Free and Lose 10 lbs on us" that waives sign-up fees and promises to refund two months of membership charges for people who lose at least 10 pounds during their first two months.

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Weight Watchers ran the same offer at the time the Super Bowl ad aired. But the deal was never mentioned in the ad.

The marketer picked New York-based DiMassimo Goldstein partly because of its direct-response ad track record, Mr. Herrera said. But Weight Watchers is still planning to launch a formal ad agency review soon. The goal is to get new work in time for the all-important winter dieting season.

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