Dead children, domestic abuse, missing puppies and cyber bullying made the Super Bowl more like the Somber Bowl. Advertisers tugged at the heart-strings, made us tear up and in some cases, even gasp, in an effort to sell cars, beer, soda and insurance.
While most of the commercials had a serious tone, ultimately the underlying messages were positive. Nissan, Dove Men + Care and Toyota celebrated dads, while Coca-Cola looked to put an end to hate-filled internet comments by turning them into positive messages. Always emphasized female empowerment and Microsoft featured a little boy with prosthetic legs to show how its technology is bettering lives.
Still, at least one may have gone too far.
Nationwide received plenty of social media backlash after running its commercial, "Boy."
"I'll never learn to ride a bike, or get cooties," says a little boy, as animated cooties introduce a fantasy tone. "I'll never learn to fly or travel the world with my best friend. And I won't ever get married." The reason he won't get to do any of these things, as the world knows now, is because he dies in a preventable accident.
The insurer's goal with the commercial, which donned the hashtag #makesafehappen, was to incite conversation and raise awareness of the issue of preventable childhood deaths.
Nationwide CMO Matthew Jauchius said preventable injuries around the home are the leading cause of childhood deaths in America.
"We weren't trying to sell insurance with this spot, we were trying to save children's lives," he said.
That's why Nationwide did not tease the commercial ahead of the Super Bowl or use other marketing tactics the way it had for its other Super Bowl spot, a comedic approach starring Mindy Kaling to make a point about insurance companies that make customers feel invisible.
Following the commercial, Mr. Jauchius said thousands of people visited MakeSafeHappen.com, a website to help educate parents and caregivers on how to make their homes safer to avoid potential injury or death, and hundreds downloaded the app. (The ad, viewed on millions of flatscreen TVs Sunday night, showed accident scenarios including the wreckage of a toppled flatscreen TV that would have crushed any child underneath.)
Mr. Jauchius added the commercial was designed to stage an intevention and start a conversation. He wanted to go strong enough with the message that it wouldn't get lost in the clutter.
"The creative hit the balance of being strong enough to get attention but not shut people down," he said.
The commercial certainly did get people talking, with Nationwide the most-mentioned advertiser during the big game, according to Amobee Brand Intelligence. But of its nearly 240,000 mentions during the game, 64% were negative.
While Nationwide likely had good intentions with the ad, the party atmosphere of the Super Bowl may not have been the right platform for the message, said Raymond Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business.
"The ad also likely detracted from Nationwide's other new ad, featuring Mindy Kaling and Matt Damon, which was well done," he said.
Mr. Jauchius disagrees with those who say the Super Bowl isn't the place for serious messaging.
"The Super Bowl is the biggest venue in the country and is precisely the place to start a conversation," he said.
"In spite of the negative press, I do think Nationwide is likely to recover from this and can even turn it into a long-run positive," Professor Taylor said.
Advertisers trying to raise serious issues and incite some tears is nothing new for the Super Bowl, but it seems there were simply more brands trying to provoke emotion in this year's game.
About 20% of the Super Bowl commercials used appeals to social causes or social responsibility as part of their messaging, Professor Taylor estimates.
Of course, there were still plenty of light-hearted commercials, like Loctite's "Positive Feelings," Avocados from Mexico's "First Draft Ever," Fiat's "Blue Pill" and Snickers' "Brady Bunch" spoof. And these ads resonated with viewers, with 5 of the top 10 most-watched commercials having a comedic appeal, accord to TiVo research.
But Prashant Malaviya, associate professor of marketing, Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, said the more serious nature of this year's Super Bowl commercials is a good thing for marketing.
"While humorous commercials may grab people's attention while they are watching, it doesn't necessarily serve the brand in the long-run," he said. "People may remember the joke but not necessarily the brand."
Professor Malaviya agrees the Super Bowl may not have been the best platform for Nationwide's "Boy" spot, but the ad did its job in getting people to think. And even if the overarching sentiment is negative, it at least generated a conversation that will likely be longer-lasting than if the approach was purely banal humor, he said.