In theory, Super Bowl Sunday is a family-friendly event — gathering around the television, eating finger foods, and cheering for a favorite team. In reality, between the skimpy cheerleader costumes, the unpredictable half-time musical act, and most notably the controversial ads, watching the Super Bowl can be awkward for parents, who often have to explain adult concepts to kids.
That shocking Nationwide ad for life insurance that aired on Sunday is a perfect example. The spot left people — parents or not — confused and angry. Here’s a recap: The ad opens with a little boy wistfully saying, “I’ll never learn to fly. Or travel the world with my best friend. And I won’t ever get married.
“I couldn’t grow up because I died from an accident.”
The ad then shows a series of accidents —a bathtub overflowing with water, depicting a drowning scene, an open kitchen cabinet revealing toxic cleaning supplies, and a fallen television to portray a “tip-over death,” tragedies that occur when furniture falls onto kids. In 2011, tip-over accidents killed 49 kids per year, an increase from 21 in 2010.
Almost immediately after the Nationwide ad aired, Twitter exploded with reaction.
“My kids especially loved the Nationwide commercial where the cute little boy died suddenly in a bathtub drowning accident,” tweeted New York Times writer Katie Rosman. “New jingle: Nationwide is on your side, along with depression and fear and anxiety,” wrote Peter Shankman. Others called the ad a “buzzkill” and “dark.”
The reaction to the ad, created by Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, prompted Nationwide to release a statement on Sunday: “Preventable injuries around the home are the leading cause of childhood deaths in America. Most people don’t know that,” it reads. “Nationwide ran an ad during the Super Bowl that started a fierce conversation. The sole purpose of this message was to start a conversation, not sell insurance. We want to build awareness of an issue that is near and dear to all of us-the safety and well being of our children. We knew the ad would spur a variety of reactions. In fact, thousands of people visited MakeSafeHappen.com, a new website to help educate parents and caregivers with information and resources in an effort to make their homes safer and avoid a potential injury or death. Nationwide has been working with experts for more than 60 years to make homes safer. While some did not care for the ad, we hope it served to begin a dialogue to make safe happen for children everywhere.”
According to a story published by CNN, which filmed a Nationwide meeting in November, chief marketing officer Matt Jauchius said the ad “balances that edge of being interventionist to get attention, but it’s approachable enough not to turn people off at the Super Bowl.”
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Yet for parents, the ad packed a double offense: Not only does it introduce the concept of death to children (or evoke painful memories), it specifically depicts a child’s death, which contradicts the manner in which parents typically explain death to kids: An event that happens “when you’re much, much older.”
According to Beverly Hills based psychotherapist Fran Walfish, PsyD, the best way to explain the ad to kids is with a calm and collected approach. “First, it’s important to read your child,” Walfish tells Yahoo Parenting. “Did he react to the ad? Did he express fear in his body language? If you’re unsure, say something like, ‘Did you catch that ad? Do you have any questions about it?’”
If the damage is done, say, “The people who made that ad are trying to sell something expensive to grownups and they used a very rare example in order to catch our attention. Someone made a mistake and put it on during the Super Bowl.”
By the age of 4, most children have experienced death in some manner, be it a loved person or pet or peripherally (say, a teacher or friend’s parent). However, if the ad introduced the concept of death for the first time, Walfish says to try something like, “You’ve seen flowers bloom and then wither quickly and you’ve also seen trees that have lived for a very long time. People are like trees and most live a really long time until they get a disease and they’re old.” Walfish cautions against using the word “sick” so kids don’t interpret a common cold as a death sentence.
Ultimately, she says, death is scary to kids because they often think, “What will happen to me?” and they need reassurance that, in the event of death, someone will care for them. “Letting your kids know that you and your spouse are young and healthy and will live a long, long time, even to see their own grandchildren — a concept that feels really far away to kids — will help.”
And don’t over explain, says Walfish. “Showing too much concern can also raise alarm bells for children who may have not otherwise been affected,” she says.