What’s With All the Dark, Depressing Super Bowl Ads This Year?

Why so serious?

Screenshot from YouTube

By the time Katy Perry arrived on stage with a troop of dancing sharks, pretty much everyone was in need of some light, sparkly fun. That’s because the first half of the Super Bowl was heavy on dark, grim, and outright depressing ads.

First, there was the #withdad ad from Nissan, which the company says on YouTube “follows the struggles of a hardworking and close-knit family striving for togetherness across the years.” Perhaps, but it also spends a full 20 seconds on a horrifying moment in which the father, a race-car driver, is nearly killed in a high-speed crash while the mom watches the TV in shock and terror and her son plays with a toy car. Charming family stuff! The real kicker is that the spot is set to Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Chapin died in a car crash in 1981 at the age of 38.

But the one that really struck a nerve with viewers was a roughly 45-second slot from Nationwide on childhood deaths. In the ad, a young boy pedals along on a tricycle before hanging his head over the handlebars to think, “I’ll never learn to ride a bike.” Why is that, you might ask? “I couldn’t grow up. Because I died from an accident.” The commercial cuts to a shot of an overflowing bathtub, then a spilled bin of (presumably toxic) cleaning products, and finally a toppled television. “The No. 1 cause of childhood deaths is preventable accidents,” reads the text.

The “Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up” ad (and no, Nationwide does not mean Peter Pan) was produced as part of the insurance company’s “Make Safe Happen” campaign. If the goal was to raise awareness about children’s deaths from preventable accidents, Nationwide has certainly accomplished that. The ad also came just days after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission released a report stating that from 2000 to 2013, 279 children were killed from falling TVs, pieces of furniture, or appliances. An estimated 11,000 children age 18 or younger were treated in emergency departments for injuries related to falling TVs each year from 2011 to 2013.

On the other hand, if the aim was to elicit support for Nationwide’s insurance, then it seems to have been a resounding failure.  

The heartrending commercial was especially jarring in contrast with the other ad that Nationwide ran during the second quarter, an upbeat number featuring Mindy Kaling and Matt Damon. The #InvisibleMindy ad was from creative agency McKinney, while the other was done by Ogilvy & Mather through a partnership with Safe Kids Worldwide and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio. When AdWeek called up Ogilvy to get more info on the “Make Safe Happen” ad two days ago, the agency reportedly deferred comment to Nationwide, where a representative had this to say: “We do have a few surprises for Super Bowl viewers.” From what we know now, that was probably the understatement of the game.