Our attitude of shock and awe toward Nationwide’s commercial proves we still live in a culture that sanitizes or avoids death.
Despite a final-hour upset over the Seahawks in the Patriots favor, and Katy Perry’s flaming dress, which garnered an instant Buzzfeed comparison list, the most talked about element of the 2015 Superbowl online is the Nationwide Insurance commercial, “Make Safe Happen” featuring a dead child.
It might, in fact, be the most remembered commercial of the year…and the most reviled. It broke the contract between American consumers and the entertainment industry that promises advertising will stay securely in the realm of fantasy.
No one can be blamed for feeling upset after a cherubic brown-haired child delivers the gut-punch of a line, “I couldn’t grow up because I died from an accident” after walking us through all the major milestone life events that he will never get to experience. It is, in fact, a bit of a bait and switch, and as manipulative as any commercial. But I believe the reason everyone’s ire is so up is that we live in a culture where advertising has one job: to tantalize us to buy products by promising us fantasies. And to do that, we must fall under the spell of what the company is selling so as to want it more than our own broken, sad, fat, depressed, not rich enough, sexless lives. Death just isn’t sexy.
I mean, really, how dare Nationwide remind us of the fact that a) death happens to everyone, even our children and b) talk about death in the midst of The Super Bowl, football being a sport in which 1 out of 3 players is likely to suffer traumatic brain injuries that can lead to early death and dementia.
See, we Americans like our death to promise other things, like, life after death, for example. Or immortality. ABC, in fact, has just ended the first season of a show called Resurrection, in which people—adults and children—return from death, and they’re not zombies or vampires. An acquaintance of mine lost her 6-year-old daughter a year ago to an aggressive cancerous tumor without a cure. When she saw the teasers for Resurrection, she wrote on Facebook how sick she felt, because she, who lives in the harsh light of reality, knows that children don’t come back from the dead. At least Nationwide didn’t make any false promises.
Our attitude of shock and awe toward Nationwide’s commercial proves we still live in a culture that sanitizes or avoids death. We don’t talk about the realities of it, but show after show on primetime puts center stage death, rape, dismemberment, and murder—usually of women—with great ratings.
It’s one of the things I loved so dearly about HBO’s show Six Feet Under. It took death head on, treated it as inevitable, part of life, and reminded us of our short and beautiful time in these bodies.
If you’ve lost a child, or are dealing with an ill one, you know how present death is. If you’ve had to care for or work with elderly people at the end of their lives, you know just how unglamorous and sometimes protracted, death can be.
I will never forget my Oma’s last 24 hours of life, because I was lucky enough to be there for most of them, five months pregnant myself at the time. We did what people do at the edge of death: we gathered, hovering, crowding close as though to shroud her in life. We told jokes, we laughed, but mostly we stayed near. I always thought I would be afraid of a dying person but I wanted to be closer.
For some, perhaps, death is a quiet slipping away, but in her it was a vigorous activity, a kind of deathly calisthenics, her lungs working hard, her limbs twitching, eyes rolling behind lids like an active dreamer. Eventually, the day waned to a long close. She swatted away an invisible fly and we quickly understood: she wanted us gone. Dying is a personal endeavor. People get in the way, tether you to the earth, to your weak body and your leaking mind. I kissed her soft forehead, which still smelled of Oil of Olay, and smoothed back her thin bangs. “I love you, go peacefully,” I said.
The mortuary did not whisk away her body, and so I was able to see her one last time—what remarkable smoothness in her skin. Luminous, free of corporeal worries and pain, she looked like a girl, still and quiet in her repose.
I’m grateful for every moment of that process with her. And it’s why I keep pushing my own parents, only in their 60s, and in good health, but both of whom have suffered scary accidents in recent years, to get their own end-of-life affairs in order.
Not talking about death is not just a symptom of our fears about it, but can be harmful to end of life care for the elderly. Sarah Kliff wrote in an article for Vox.com recently that by not talking about death, and the messy, unpleasant details of what we do and don’t want when it should come to us, “Patients, in a way, end up living the exact scenario that the death-panel rhetoric made so fearsome: giving over decisions about their last moments of life to another party.”
Perhaps Nationwide was poor in its timing, but I couldn’t help but applaud it for taking a chance, opening a dialogue, and appealing beyond the fantasy-seeking parts of our nature, to the practical, painful, rarely talked about parts: that we lose the ones we love, sometimes at the end of a long, hearty life, and sometimes too soon.
Jordan Rosenfeld is author of: A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, Make a Scene, Write Free, and the novels Forged in Grace, and Night Oracle. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in: Brain, Child, Dame, Modern Loss, The New York Times, Paste, Purple Clover, The Rumpus, Stir Journal, the Washington Post, Role Reboot and more.