Nationwide is sort of on the side of African-Americans now, too

Nationwide has a commercial in which an African-American couple is getting married in a church full of African-Americans. You can watch it here, but I’ll also describe it below:

The minister interrupts the ceremony to ask the groom if he’s got enough insurance for their future. The groom looks panicked. The minister asks if there’s a Nationwide rep in the congregation. An African-American woman stands up, rushes to the front, and fixes everything up for the happy couple. Then she announces the two are now one Nationwide insurance policy.

On the plus side, we have a commercial featuring African Americans through and through, doing things people of every race do (getting married, needing insurance, etc.). And we have a woman saving the day. It’s also a positive that the minister – one of the two speaking roles – speaks like a normal African-American man – he’s neither a caricature of black preachers, nor a black face delivering the “standard American” (read: white) speech patterns and enunciations we most often hear on TV.

But unlike the rest of the commercial’s players, the insurance rep is light-skinned with features as white as Halle Berry’s. I was a little annoyed by this reinforcement of the narrow and racist Hollywood beauty standard, but prepared to overlook it… until the big finale. She turns to the audience and speaks in a voice/accent so white you’d never guess she was a person of color if your eyes were closed or your TV contrast wasn’t adjusted properly. To top it all off, she rocks her shoulders stiffly side to side in a parody of a gesture stereotyped African-Americans use for emphasis on TV a lot. And just in case that’s not clear enough, the narrator is – you guessed it – a white man.

Now, Nationwide’s intent may have been good, but that’s exactly what makes this commercial worth analyzing. There’s not much we can say about the 99 out of 100 commercial that don’t even feature people of color, or feature only modelesque young white women alongside fat middle-aged men, except “Status quo, once more with feeling.” If other companies perceive this commercial as having done well for its company, they’ll decide to mimic elements of it, and the elements they pick are as likely to be the problematic ones as the positive ones.

Instead of sending an entirely positive message like “…and some of our customers just happen to be African-American,” Nationwide has (probably unthinkingly) positioned itself as a white company reaching out to African-Americans with thinly disguised white representatives. In trying to assess the intent, I keep coming back to that shoulder move the actress does. I’m not sure Nationwide meant it as a parody – if they did, there’s no hope for them, so I’m assuming they didn’t. Maybe they intended it as an ironic send-up of a stereotype, but because the character really feels like a white woman in disguise, the irony gets lost. Also, if anyone argues that perhaps the actress wasn’t talented enough to do it right, I can assure you there is such a surplus of actresses available for career-boosting speaking parts in national commercials that one who doesn’t work right or has a pimple the day of the shoot can be replaced in, oh, fifteen minutes. That’s how it works.

I do feel acknowledging African-Americans as customers with the same basic needs as white people is a positive, no matter what mistakes Nationwide made in the execution. I hope whoever next attempts a commercial like this takes it a step or two further in the right direction.

ETA: This commercial didn’t last long. Nationwide is now running a game show commercial in which a white woman needs to insure her – get this – two new cars (someone pass them a memo about the economy, please?) while a black woman with straightened hair does the Vanna White thing. Oh, yeah:


  1. Occasional Expositor says

    Hmm. I also notice that the man is the one who needs to get the insurance, presumably as the ‘provider’ in the marriage.

  2. says

    Yeah, that was yet another part I was willing to overlook given that (A) it’s realistic, sadly, as people still think of men as providers even though there are, like, four salaries left in America that would provide for a whole household on their own and (b) the insurance rep was a woman.

  3. sbg says

    Contrast it with one of the Wells Fargo banking spots featuring an African-American woman concerned about normal, everyday investment-type issues, with a female voiceover…yeah, Nationwide gets a few points, but they could do better.

    I wish I could find the spot I’m referencing online.

  4. Meaghan says

    Oooh, that is very frustrating, mostly because it DOES get so many things so right. Unfortunately, having worked with radio commercials, I know how much review and scrutiny commercials go under, even ones that aren’t national commercials, so I doubt the points you bring up weren’t considered. The rep’s “passability” is probably to keep white people from being alienated and was probably chosen as such. The voice over I’d just attribute to the darn idea that there is one guy who narrates movie trailers and that is the only acceptable voice over and anything else can only deviate if it’s for a reason.

    Actually, I don’t know if I’d consider the rep that light skinned or her accent that white, but it does bother me that she’s the lightest and also dressed the least “black folk in church”-ish of all the people in the spot.

    What I don’t see in this commercial is pandering, though, and that I like. Living in Canada, I see entirely too many commercials (especially for banks!) with HEY LOOK MINORITIES! WE ARE SO INCLUSIVE! But the rep is always white, so it feels like white is normal and these are special people that need help from big white Canadian bank.

  5. says

    SBG, I’d like to see those. I haven’t come across them on TV.

    Meaghan, VERY good points.

    Actually, I don’t know if I’d consider the rep that light skinned or her accent that white, but it does bother me that she’s the lightest and also dressed the least “black folk in church”-ish of all the people in the spot.

    That’s a better way of saying what I was trying to get at. She is lighter than everyone else, and her features struck me as very white, and… there are just several visual and audio cues which apart aren’t problematic, but all together add up to a more “white” perception. Which, as you point out, is probably designed not to alienate any racist whites who might be incensed that their insurance company is spending their money to attract customers of color.

    I agree that it’s not pandering, either. I just wish they’d more perfectly hit that note of normalization in which it just happens to be a commercial cast entirely with African-Americans.

  6. Hall says

    Not sure I’m so against this one, and there are many that I am. I have seen this commercial and I agree it got a lot of things right. As stated the Nationwide rep was “different” from the others in the ad but working for a large commercial organization I see daily that sales reps look different than who they sell to in many cases. If anything she was dressed a touch casual for me. She should have been in a suit, still “fly”, but very professional. In the end I feel like you don’t have to act stereotypically Black to to be Black. The Allstate commercials with Dennis Haysbert are a perfect example. He’s just a guy selling insurance who happens to be Black. Certainly no one would argue that the rep in the ad is African American, she is as much a part of Black America as the Black woman in the big church hat fanning herself. Matter of fact the rep reminds me a bit of my sister.

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