By now, you’ve either seen or heard about that depressing Nationwide commercial that aired during the Superbowl. Need a refresher now that your eyeballs have stopped aching with the sting of your tears? It featured a little boy discussing all of the things he won’t do, like catch cooties or get married.
He won’t do them because he died by accident.
I guess Nationwide’s approach worked: it’s been a few days and here we are, talking about that commercial. But at what cost? All I could think of was all of those families whose kids have died, just trying to enjoy a normal evening watching the Superbowl and getting stuck watching that instead.
Sorry. That got grim. How are your eyeballs feeling?
Anyway, all of this got me thinking about the Nationwide ad execs’ thought process. It’s obvious they set out to make the saddest commercial possible. With a little more thought about other bummer commercials, I think I’ve cracked the code. Here’s your guide to creating a horribly depressing tv spot:
Can there be an animal? Maybe that animal could be an old person’s only friend. That’s pretty good. Gets in fear of loneliness, dread of your own mortality, and a cute puppy. To wit:
Hang on. That dog looks pretty happy and well-tended. Could you make that animal sadder, like lost or bedraggled, maybe?
Okay. That was nice. Let’s try making that animal almost die, now. What else? I don’t know. 90s folk-pop, I suppose.
Hold up. Sarah McLachlan’s pretty young. Let’s go back to the old guy in the dog commercial. Old people… I like it. How about someone’s relationship with their grandparent? Grandparents are old:
Nice. Now let’s take that grandparent and crank it up to parent:
On second thought, you know what’s way sadder than a college student having a parent? A child NOT having a parent, like in this Campbell’s soup commercial where a little girl is in foster care, eating soup.
That child looks pretty healthy, though. We can do better.
Hmm. That little girl from the soup commercial… why do you think she didn’t have parents? Maybe they died. It’s time to up the ante. Someone’s got to die. Singapore knows what’s up:
Nah. That seems like a funeral for an adult. We have to make this sad. The SADDEST. It has to be a child. That’s where Nationwide landed:
There are a few other tricks you can employ. Filming in regular color is fine, but as many of these spots show, sometimes it’s better to use something that looks like an instagram filter. It’s also good if someone dignified can show emotion. So, a football coach, or a Native American chief. Those elements are great. But if you want to make a true downer of a commercial, you have to look past the puppies. Do not stop at old people. Parent-child relationships? Maybe. But you really need death. Particularly the death of a child.
Or, you know, you can make a funny commercial instead. Or a neutral one. These are all awful. In fact, I’d like to watch the exact opposite of these commercials. Like, a living child hanging out with his healthy, living puppy as his loving, alive parents sit in the other room, and then his very alive, non-lonely granddad pops over for a visit.
Ah, who am I kidding? That would make me cry just as much.