How Nationwide Overcame Oral Interference to Win the Super Bowl

2 min read

Americans eat more, and eat less healthily, on the day of the Super Bowl than on any other day of the year–even Thanksgiving. I know I did my part. Between the caramel-filled pumpkin cake and the buffalo chicken cheese dip, I consumed somewhere in the neighborhood of all the calories. Weight Watchers—who was a first-time Super Bowl advertiser last night—definitely would not have approved.

Of course, we don’t limit our consumption to food. You don’t need a study to tell you that Americans drink themselves silly during the Super Bowl. Which raises the question: Is it wise to spend $4.5 million on a 30-second ad for an audience that’s strung out on food and booze?

Not according to a couple of studies recently discussed on NPR. They found that people are less receptive to advertising messages when they’re eating large quantities of food (the name of this effect is deliciously ironic: oral interference). They also found that the “hyper-excited” (read: “drunk”) minds of Super Bowl watchers may not be well-positioned to process ad content.

Nevertheless, corporations continue to spend silly money on Super Bowl ads. And since we’re all too whacked out on dip and chicken wings and craft beer to pay attention to them, the winners are the ones that get the most run the next day. That means that Super Bowl advertisers need to do more than sell their product or promote their brand. They need to create a conversation piece. And this year, nobody did that better than Nationwide.

Do you remember the Nationwide ad? The one with the cute kid with a mop of brown hair talking about the things he’ll never do? I have to confess that I only remember it up to the part where my friend offered me some dark chocolate truffles. It turns out (spoiler alert) the boy dies in the end. That Nationwide had the nerve to kill him off shook up the Twitterverse, and the hot takes are still coming at a furious pace today.

Mike and Mike couldn’t stop talking about how depressing it was on their ESPN radio show this morning. The Internet has collectively condemned it as “shocking.” But from an advertiser’s perspective, a little shock probably isn’t a bad idea when your audience is in a calorie-induced fugue state.

The official line from Nationwide is that they wanted to “start a conversation” about childhood safety and accident prevention. But they clearly intended to snap people out of their consumption comas. And they probably also wanted to earn a bunch of media after the fact. They succeeded in doing at least the latter. And that’s about the best outcome an advertiser could hope for after investing $4.5 million in 30 little seconds.