This is still bothering me, so I’m gonna expand on it.
There’s a standard we set for all Superbowl ads. They can be funny, they can be heartwarming, or they can be some combination of the above as well as awesome. Anything that does not fall within that triangle is a Disappointment, and there should be criminal penalties for it. Like floggings.
I want to convince myself I’m being tongue-in-cheek about that, but… no, I’ve sat through some terrible, terrible ads in the last 15 years. After comparing those to the much better ads of the ’90s, when the commercials were overwhelmingly good, I think I’m okay with embracing a little hyperbole.
The disappointment factor was through the roof on Sunday night, but no one embraced it more heartily than Nationwide, who set a new standard of badness by which all bad commercial choices will hereby be measured. Disappointing the audience on Superbowl Sunday should be criminal, but outright depressing them should be a capital crime.
There are people who watch the game and expect to enjoy a good time with their friends and family. Some of those people might have already lost kids to tragedy, or maybe came very close. This is the worst possible time to remind them. And for everyone else, the good mood of the day is thrown right into the dumpster. The dead kid ad was absolutely beyond the pale, and I hope heads roll for it. Figuratively, I mostly mean.
Here’s where it gets so much worse for me: The ad was more than bad enough, but Nationwide’s statement in response to the entirely foreseeable backlash was a dick move. We know it’s a dick move because of what they said, and when they said it. In a statement late Sunday night, they said they wanted the ad to “start a conversation”. Well congratulations, Nationwide; you did start a conversation. The conversation is about why you’re dicks, and I will prove this directly.
(Full disclosure: I was a Nationwide customer years ago, for my car insurance. I wasn’t terribly impressed by their claims adjustor the one time I was rear-ended, who estimated the damage absurdly low when the other driver’s insurance, State Farm, came within $2 of the exact estimate I got from the body shop. Nor was I a fan of their premiums. I switched to my wife’s insurance when we got married, and I’ve been happy with it ever since. But then, I may be biased on account of my current insurer never deliberately pissing all over a national holiday.)
Think about who says things like that. Wanting to start a conversation is the exact same excuse you get from guys who paint with poop and build tacky sculptures of genitalia. When a “performance artist” does something obnoxious and gets called on it, they say they just meant to start a conversation. This blatant attempt to duck responsibility is so over-the-top, it’s actually a comedy trope: Tim Taylor electrocutes himself on a wire and explains that he meant to do that, to demonstrate safety. Funny when played for laughs, disgusting when used in earnest. It insults the intelligence of all who hear it. But perhaps what infuriates me all the more is that I recently saw that this exact same excuse was used by a YouTuber by the name of Sam Pepper.
I never watched Sam’s “prank” channel, but his creepy stunts have frequently veered into sexual harassment or even assault. (E.g.: handcuffing himself to women in public and demanding a kiss to release them.) He probably used actors and friends to fake these a lot, but that’s still in terrible taste. He drew a firestorm a few months ago when one of his videos crossed that line once again. Four days after that got taken down because of massive reports and major dislike counts, he made up a ridiculous story about how that video was intended to be the first in a three-part series. He uploaded a video with the genders reversed, and then made a third “reveal” video where he claimed the whole thing was to start a conversation about sexual harassment. It was easily one of the worst and most botched attempts to cover one’s own butt ever to happen outside of government, especially when his past videos shredded the notion that he was interested in promoting change. That’s when women started coming out of the woodwork to say that Sam had harassed or assaulted them, in some instances including actual rape. (I watched one of the videos where a woman told her story. It was heartbreaking. She was entirely credible, and Sam is not. It proves nothing, but let’s just say the anecdotal case against Bill Cosby is nowhere near as strong.)
My point in digressing onto this specific douchebag is: When someone does something so ham-fistedly terrible that they legitimately thought they were being funny, clever, making a point worth making, or so on, only to face a huge and justifiably angry pitchfork-bearing mob in response, the way they handle it says everything. If it was an honest mistake, you get a real apology. “Sorry, everyone. We don’t know why it wasn’t as clear to us then as it is in hindsight now, but we really screwed up.” It’s that simple. But when the person or entity doing this is an asshat royale, you get statements like “We stand by what we did/said” which is inevitably followed by “We wanted to get people talking; to open a dialogue; to start a conversation.”
The notion that all publicity is good publicity is inherently contemptible. At some point, there’s a line you can cross where this is no longer true. Reasonable people understand this line. Lots of unreasonable ones recognize it too. But there are some people so willfully horrible that they think they can murder puppies in front of an audience and the publicity is always a net gain.
Speaking of puppies, let’s compare and contrast. GoDaddy’s ad this year was unfathomably lame—until I learned that it was a last-minute drop-in replacement for an ad they’d made that accidentally glorified puppy mills. It was supposed to be a spoof of the Budweiser ads, but when some people online commented that showing people selling a puppy on eBay is really tacky, GoDaddy did the right thing and pulled the spot. (They still don’t get a pass from me after supporting SOPA, though.) In paraphrase: “Oops. We screwed up.” I’d call it admirable, except frankly that’s minimal. I expect absolutely nothing less from civilized human beings.
So when Nationwide said they wanted to start a conversation, that’s not really what they meant. If that were true, they could have started that conversation in any number of effective but palatable ways. No, what they meant is that their marketing department and whoever else signed off on it subscribes to “All publicity is good publicity” in the extreme. When a company does that, “Screw you, customers!” is the inevitable result. They meant that they didn’t care about offending anyone, triggering bad memories in parents already traumatized by something similar, or even the crime of depressing the audience. They meant that they went for shock value for its own sake, even though taking refuge in shock is the mark of the lazy orator, and passing shock off as merely wanting to foster discussion is the mark of the dick. All they cared about was that bump on Twitter, the storm of comments bearing their name.
They got it, all right. I hope they friggin’ choke on it.