A young man with an unusual perspective on the ups and downs of life is singing the praises of being prepared financially.The verb in that sentence may help you guess his identity. He is Sanjaya Malakar, who may be the most talked-about contestant to appear on the popular reality series American Idol. Malakar, who turned 19 on Wednesday, is featured in a commercial for Nationwide Financial that is part of the next instalment of a campaign carrying the theme Life comes at you fast. There is also a special website (sanjaya-ize.com) where visitors can customise photographs of themselves with different looks sported by Malakar on television; the results can be shared with friends and family. The rise of Malakar last year from unknown Seattle-area teenager to national sensation as a finalist on the sixth season of American Idol was meteoric. The debate over his talent, or lack thereof, and his oddball hairstyles, like the "ponyhawk" — ponytails crossed with a faux mohawk — attracted so much attention that he has become part of American popular culture. He has been parodied on TV shows like Saturday Night Live and in movies like Meet the Spartans. It is that fame, or notoriety, that Nationwide hopes to tap into by signing Malakar for the campaign. He is the most recent in a string of offbeat personalities signed by Nationwide to illustrate how rapidly the vagaries of life can change your financial needs. The others include the former rapper MC Hammer and Kevin Federline, the former husband of Britney Spears. In each instance, the celebrity is in on the joke, poking fun at himself and his experience with the potentials and pitfalls of stardom. For example, the commercial with Federline, which appeared during the 2007 Super Bowl, began with him performing in an elaborate rap video. But it turned out to be a daydream he was having during his shift as the fry chef at a fast-food restaurant. The commercial with Malakar is among six, all humorous, that are being aimed at Americans of South Asian heritage; Malakar is the son of a Bengali Indian father and an Italian-American mother. This is the third year that Nationwide has focused on the South Asian market with tailored advertising. The company also sponsors specific ads for black consumers as well as Spanish-speaking consumers and those who are gay or lesbian. The campaign is by a New York agency named the A Partnership that creates ads for marketers seeking to reach Asian-American consumers. The ads adapt the Life comes at you fast theme developed by the Nationwide agency for the general market, TM Advertising in Dallas, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies. Consumers from South Asian countries like India and Pakistan are "a quickly emerging market for a lot of reasons," said Steven Schreibman, vice-president for advertising and brand management at the Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company in Columbus, Ohio. Americans of South Asian heritage tend to be highly educated, Schreibman said, and focused on the financial well-being of their families. That is reflected in the plots of the commercials in the campaign, which began last month. In one spot, the proud parents of a son who has been accepted to an Ivy League college have to sell just about everything they own to keep him there. On graduation day, he informs his mother and father, "I'm going to London for my Ph.D." In response, they cry — and clearly, not tears of joy. In another commercial, an office worker discovers he has won the lottery. He goes into his boss' office to quit but loses his grip on his winning ticket, which floats through the air and lands in the boss' shredder. Oops! The commercial with Malakar, filmed in India, starts with him standing outside a temple, singing for a long time — as evidenced by changes in the weather and the variety of his wacky hairstyles and outfits — to win an audience with a spiritual master. Only after he agrees to stop singing does he gain entry to the inner sanctum. "Oh, great Guruji, please help me," Malakar says. "I've tasted fame and fortune. Girls adore me. But I still feel that there's something missing. Tell me, what is the most important thing in life?" The master, resplendent in a white robe, intones, "A good retirement plan," as the doors close on him. An announcer says, "Life comes at you fast," and the doors open. "And a haircut," the master adds, as the doors close again. Malakar, who accompanied Schreibman to New York recently for interviews about the campaign, said he liked the concept for the commercial as soon as he heard about it. "Especially if you're going to continue being an entertainer, be in the media, you have to have some humour about yourself," said Malakar, who said that in addition to working on an album he was pursuing deals for a book, a reality TV show and a video game. "The thing that took the longest" during the filming of the commercial, Malakar recalled, was the creation of the many hairstyles he sports, some based on his American Idol looks and others brand new. Some of the hairdos required egg whites for body, he added, laughing, and some required "two cans of hair spray." The concept for the spot was developed with Malakar in mind, said Jeannie Yuen, president and chief executive at the A Partnership. The commercials "are playing on typical South Asia lifestyle situations," she added, particularly the one about college, because "a lot of South Asians come here for education." NYTThe goal of the campaign is to build awareness for the Nationwide brand among South Asians, Yuen said, which is "very middle American" and "not a brand they're exposed to in their home countries." The commercials are appearing on television outlets that are watched by the target audience, which include Zee TV. Now that Nationwide has added another celebrity to the "Life comes at you fast" campaign, who may be next? Well, depending on what happens on November 4, imagine this script: A woman with librarian looks walks into camera view with her husband; offspring including an infant, a pregnant teenage daughter and a soldier son; and a prospective son-in-law carrying a hockey stick. "I've gone from obscurity to celebrity and back to obscurity," she says ruefully. "Life comes at you fast."