02/06/2015 12:48 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2015

Nationwide's Buzzkill Supported by Science

If Peyton Manning humming the Nationwide Insurance jingle didn't burn the company's name into your brain over these last few months, its dark, despairing Super Bowl spot surely did the trick.

If you saw the ad, you remember it. In a playful tone, a sweet young boy discusses the life experiences he has seemingly not yet experienced -- from learning to ride a bicycle to getting married -- before delivering the jolting news that it's not that these events had yet to occur, but that they never would... because he died in a childhood accident. Nationwide then shows us some examples of how the boy may have met his tragic end -- an overflowing tub, poisons under the sink, a large TV toppled onto the floor -- before delivering the punchline: "Make Safe Happen."

Nationwide was heavily criticized for the spot but defended itself, saying the message was not meant to be a sales pitch at all, but a "conversation starter." In fairness, the message is a good one -- more awareness of preventable injuries could well save lives -- but only a rube would believe that's all that was at play here.

The buzzkill nature of the commercial, aired during the first half of America's biggest sports event, at a cost of millions of advertising dollars, was certainly aimed at selling insurance. It made you remember Nationwide, whether you were moved, angered or simply informed by the heartbreaking image of the commercial.

Because, admit it. Which one of Sunday's commercials do you remember with the most clarity?

Focus on the Fearful

There's a scientific explanation for the phenomenon, for why we focus on the painful or fearful things in life more than we do the happy or joyful events. It's called the "negativity bias."

As a doctor who has studied how the brain responds to negative messages, I would argue that Nationwide knew exactly what it was doing. Hundreds of scientific studies support the existence of the negativity bias. We are hard-wired to ruminate on the negative. It is a natural part of our psyche, initially called upon to keep us alert when we were prey, on guard for that saber-toothed tiger that might be waiting for us in the next clearing.

Take a look at the science:

  • Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman coined the term "loss aversion" to describe the phenomenon that we mourn loss more deeply than we celebrate gain of the same value.
  • The brain is quicker to pick out an angry face in a crowd than a happy one.
  • Traumatic memories stick with us longer.
  • In an academic paper famously titled "Bad Is Stronger Than Good," Roy Baumeister and colleagues wrote that "bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones."
  • In a study of people watching ads from the George W. Bush and Al Gore campaigns, electrodes placed under the eyes of the participants picked up on the "startle response," the automatic eye movement typically seen in response to snakes, spiders and other threats.
  • Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist who studies positive emotions, discovered that we need to generate at least three positive thoughts to counteract each negative one. Most of us are at 2:1, and people who are depressed or have other emotional disorders are at 1:1 or lower, Fredrickson says.
  • Researcher Mario Losada studied 60 business teams and found that in the highest-performing groups, employees were complimented six times for every time they were criticized. For low-performing groups, the ratio was 1:1 or lower.

On Super Bowl Sunday, when many viewers tune in as much for the high-priced comic, poignant and extravagantly produced TV commercials as they do for the football, the Nationwide ad was largely seen as a cheap shot. Drawing us in with a light, happy tone, it ends with a horrible jolt. On a day of escapism, a celebration of football, buffalo wings and Katy Perry, it was seen as a little too much reality.

An avalanche of criticism quickly ensued. Comedian Patton Oswalt, for example, tweeted: "The second I see a kid in one of these commercials I immediately assume they're going to die. Thanks, Nationwide!" Another Twitter user wrote, "Remember to buy Nationwide Insurance or your kid dies."

But we remember. And we remember Nationwide.

Works for Smoking Cessation

The brain is a magnet for negativity. We all recall the horrifying faces of Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger more clearly than that of the third-youngest von Trapp -- or any of the von Trapps, for that matter -- from "The Sound of Music."

It is a concept well-known and universally accepted in advertising, particularly in the world of PSAs and charities. Images of starving children and suffering animals are impossible to forget when presented by aid organizations. So, too, do we remember the faces from the frightening "Tips From Former Smokers" campaign, produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has been credited with helping hundreds of thousands of smokers quit. But seldom, if ever, has a "for-profit" commercial spot stirred such emotions and caused such controversy.

We won't forget Nationwide's "conversation starter" any time soon. But after the backlash has subsided, the insurance giant knows one thing is certain: When a consumer is looking to buy an insurance policy, there is a much better chance that something in his hard-wired brain will retrieve one name in particular -- "Nationwide."

Jason Powers, M.D., is chief medical officer at Promises Austin and The Right Step network of drug addiction treatment programs in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, a scientifically validated approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives upon achieving sobriety.