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The Super Bowl, Social Media, and Bad Press: Commercials Stir Up Controversy

Every brand wants a piece of the Super Bowl, and with an estimated $4.5 million per 30 seconds of air time, it makes it hard to believe any brand would settle short of putting its best foot forward. But that is exactly what happened. In case you missed them, two Super Bowl commercials have us considering how much value there is in bad press.

This year both GoDaddy and Nationwide Insurance have had plenty of social media buzz about their respective Super Bowl commercials, which many viewers found upsetting, and they have not had any bones about letting the megabrands know. Amid all the disparaging chatter, one question remains; does the extra brand attention make up for their new bad images?

It started a week before the Super Bowl when GoDaddy released its commercial, a parody of the popular Budweiser Super Bowl puppy commercial. In GoDaddy’s version, the sweet story about a lost puppy finding his way home took a sour turn when the puppy is reunited with its breeder. The puppy made it back home safely, only to be sold instantly via a GoDaddy-made website. Thousands were outraged and took to social media, bashing GoDaddy for promoting puppy mills, which many consider animal abuse.

Reacting to the negative feedback, GoDaddy quickly removed the commercial from YouTube and announced they would be airing a different version during the actual Super Bowl. In a released statement, they admitted hoping the controversial theme would increase awareness of their company, but had underestimated the negative emotional response. Many speculate that GoDaddy knew exactly what they were doing and that their commercial would cause controversy, which would drive up their brand awareness. It is unlikely the commercial is bad enough to shut down their company, but it had just the right amount of controversy for social media users to help it go viral.

Nationwide, on the other hand, knew their commercial was making a bold statement with its “Make Safe Happen,” but they may not have expected such enormous backlash. They may have been promoting a safety theme, but ended up pushing the buttons of millions of viewers.

The morbid Nationwide commercial shows a young boy talking about all the things he will never get to experience because, well, because he was dead. The rather adorable little boy had died in an accident that could have been prevented; every parent’s worst nightmare. According to the commercial, the number one leading cause of death in children is preventable accidents.

We understand what Nationwide was trying to do – spread the truth about what can happen when precautions aren’t put into place. Nationwide’s campaign provides tips to keep children safe and in the process, they are appealing to the viewer’s emotions, as does most advertising. On social media, some claimed that it was a nasty use of manipulation to gain a profit. Others recognized that their commercial got people talking about them, which is ultimately their goal – to raise awareness of the Nationwide brand.

Marketing Land reported that the social media response was 63 percent negative. Even though the majority seemed to think that the commercial was distasteful, it’s difficult for anyone to argue against the overall message of the campaign: Make Safe Happen. People don’t like to think about a child dying, so the fact that Nationwide put the reality of that out there for millions to see was upsetting.

With social media acting as the “voice” of the public these days, anyone can share their thoughts about anything, and it often sets the tone for public opinion across the board. The press picks up these opinions and sends them back out into the public, stirring up even more controversy.

Nationwide and GoDaddy definitely took risks with their commercials, but if media attention was the ultimate goal, it seems as if they may come out on top. Everyone is talking about them, and their brand awareness is shooting through the roof. In the short term they will certainly have to reap the consequences of bad press, but it is too early to tell if their messages were to the point of causing irreparable, long-term damage.

We tend to agree that any press is better than no press, but at the rate of $150,000 per second, it seems a bit risky to take a gamble on controversy for the sake of going viral.