Technically the New England Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX with an interception in the game’s final thrilling moments, and the Seattle Seahawks lost. But in the battle that matters most for many of the game’s 100 million-plus viewers—the contest for the telecast’s best Super Bowl ad—the winner and loser turned out to be the very same company: insurance giant Nationwide.
In the game’s second quarter, Nationwide unveiled what turned out to be the Super Bowl’s best ad: “Invisible Mindy Kaling,” in which the Mindy Project star had a hilarious revelation. As narrator Julia Roberts explained, “after years of being treated like she was invisible, it occurred to Mindy, she might actually be invisible.” Kaling proceeded to indulge her every whim—sunbathing nude in Central Park, walking through a car wash—until reality set in when she tried to kiss Matt Damon, whose surprise cameo had nicely been concealed in the spot’s pre-game hype.
The spot was everything you’d want in a Super Bowl ad: packed with laughs, boasting a surprise A-lister and a message—“join the nation that sees you as a priority”—that meshed perfectly with the company.
Nationwide should have quit while it was ahead, but instead the company debuted a head-scratchingly awful companion ad later in the same quarter: “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.” The spot featured an adorable kid, who explained “I’ll never learn to ride a bike, or get cooties…” before dropping this Debbie Downer-level stunner: “I couldn’t grow up, because I died from an accident…”
What. The. Hell? Cue virtual record scratches around the country, as jaws dropped and the merriment was instantly sucked out of Super Bowl parties from coast to coast. Meanwhile, some of us were suddenly forced to have very awkward conversations with our kids about what had just occurred onscreen. “Daddy, did that boy drown in the bathtub… or was he crushed under that TV?” was certainly not a question I was expecting to field from my stunned kids during the Super Bowl.
It wasn’t just me: much of Twitter was equally horrified. Shortly after the ad aired, someone created the Twitter handle @NationwideKills (Twitter bio: “Nationwide kills kids, the worst SuperBowl ad of all time #Nationwide #NationDied”). One minute earlier, Nationwide had been the Super Bowl ad champion—and then it killed a kid.
But Nationwide’s morose ad was just the tip of the iceberg. While many of the Super Bowl sports had been leaked early (which has ruined the magic of watching them during the game), the companies decided to keep the most depressing ones under wraps until kickoff. There was Nissan’s #WithDad, which featured Harry Chapin’s song “Cats in the Cradle” and centered on an absentee dad. Coca-Cola’s #MakeItHappy spot opened with online bullying, which was somehow cured by… spilling Coke on a computer? Plus there was also the gripping domestic violence PSA, the only one in the bunch that had been posted early. And let’s not forget (though I desperately want to) the nauseatingly detailed Jublia ad that told you more than you ever wanted to know about toenail fungus.
Despite the great Kaling ad (and a handful of others, including the terrific Snickers/Brady Bunch spot), this ended up being the feel-bad Super Bowl of my lifetime. It was like the 2013 Emmys all over again, when the ceremony was inexplicably hijacked by extended tributes to James Gandolfini, Cory Monteith and All in the Family’s Jean Stapleton. While accepting his outstanding comedy Emmy for Modern Family, co-creator Steve Levitan called it “the saddest Emmys of all time.”
All of Sunday’s morose ads prompted me to utter something I never thought I’d ever say: what ever happened to all those Super Bowl ads featuring people getting hit in the crotch?