Archive for June 2013
This is the same “dilemma” that Aviva Insurance Company tried to capitalize on a couple of years ago. It was discussed on this blog here, and is reprinted here – but edited to reflect the minor, non-essential differences between that commercial and this one.
Insurance is, essentially, risk management. All of life’s aspects are constantly at risk of failure and destruction and theft. Insurance companies provide their customers with the ability to exist in spite of that risk because they are assured that should failure or destruction or theft occur, there will be no financial cost. Of course, by buying insurance – also an aspect of life – the customer is risking the possibility that he will spend money on something he may end up not needing (ie: the aspects of his life which are insured may not fail or be destroyed or be stolen within the term of the insurance contract, and thus he will not need to exercise his contractual right to be reimbursed by the insurance company). The reason why a person buys insurance for one or a number of his life’s aspects is because he judges the risk of failure or destruction or theft of those aspects to be greater than the risk of “wasting” money on insurance he will end up not needing. The only way this works – the only way this is beneficial (read: profitable) to the customer is if he assesses the aspects of his life which he wishes to insure correctly. If he assesses them incorrectly he will either buy no – or too little – insurance, suffer failure or destruction or theft of those aspects, and then suffer financially as well because he will be required to correct the damage; rather than the insurance company. Or, if he assesses his life’s aspects incorrectly by purchasing too much insurance, he may suffer no – or too little – damage to those aspects, and then suffer financially because he will be paying for a perogative which he does not need.
Another factor – one which is almost never considered – is that the insurance company doing business with the customer must also make these assessments of his life’s aspects. If it assesses them correctly, the amount of damage caused by failure or destruction or theft will reflect the premiums they received from the customer, and they will be able to reimburse him while also profiting themselves from the agreement. If they do not assess them correctly – if they ask him to pay too small of a premium – when the failure or destruction or theft occurs, the amount that they will be contractually obligated to pay to their customer will be more than they needed to receive from him and they will lose money. Similarly, if they overassess the risk of failure or destruction or theft – if they ask him to pay too large of a premium – when the failure or destruction or theft occurs, this fact will be brought to the customer’s attention and he will demand to renegotiate or stop doing business with the company entirely.
In other words: it is in an insurance company’s financial self-interest to “put members first.” To to make sure that he isn’t being “robbed” (ie: paying unnecessarily high premiums). That is how they make a profit. If an insurance company writes policies which does not take into account the interests of it’s members, it will fail to meet the interests of it’s shareholders. Members’ interests and shareholder’s interests: there is no valid distinction between the two!
Why, then, does Nationwide present this invalid conflict between members and shareholders as if it were implicit in for-profit business? The reason is two-fold. First, the public is soaked in altruistic and egalitarian sentiment. Because most people in the culture are altruists or egalitarians, when a customer incorrectly assesses the risk of failure or destruction to his life’s aspects which he wishes to insure, and (voluntarily) buys the incorrect amount of insurance, the negative consequences of this are automatically blamed on the insurance company. Because the insurance company is “big” or “wealthy”, the average member of the public assumes that the insurance company is solely responsible for this (ie: the customer is not, to any degree, responsible for evaluating his own life and bringing that to the negotiations). In other words: the “big” and “wealthy” insurance company – because it is big and wealthy – is, according to altruism and egalitarianism, morally responsible for doing all of the leg work that is involved in establishing proper terms for a given agreement. Thus, if improper terms are (again, voluntarily) agreed to, and negative consequences to the consumer occur (and occur to the insurance company also, as is much more often the case than altruists and egalitarians wish to acknowledge), it is necessarily because the insurance company was “greedy”, “heartless”, “inhuman”, “money-grubbing”, “selfish.” According to altruism, to not take care of someone (to not “put him first”) isn’t morally neutral (let alone morally good) – and isn’t even just morally wrong – but criminal.
But wait, Nationwide is a big insurance company (and the fact that it’s a mutual, instead of an equity, company doesn’t change that)*. Why would it wish to perpetuate the misconceptions surrounding the nature of insurance caused by altruism and egalitarianism? The answer is the second, interrelated cause of the existence of this commercial: pragmatism in a mixed-economy. What Nationwide is attempting to do in this ad is to appeal to the public’s short-term, unthinking, emotional urges in order to gain for itself new business in the short-term. They are attempting to portray themselves as a unique insurance company – one that exists not for self-interested purposes, but purely for altruistic and egalitarian reasons. By appearing to be a servant of the customer – as opposed to a partner with the customer in the “business” of managing the risks inherent in the act of being alive (an arrangement which they smear as being predatory on the part of the for-profit insurance companies) – they hope to gain a short-term edge over their competition. They are trying to win the business of that vast portion of the public which believes that the primary purpose of having a business is to serve others, not oneself.
Why would a company like Nationwide risk inculcating even more altruistic, egalitarian, anti-business, and anti-self-interest sentiment in the general public when, given the general public’s ability to influence public policy, it is not in their long-term self-interest to do so? The answer is that, from the perspective of just one company in a large industry, or just one industry in a large economy, there is no “long-term.” In a mixed-economy such as the one that exists today – where there are some freedoms and some controls – there is no way for an individual company like Nationwide to know what the business environment will look like years, or even months, from now. In the future, they could very well be the victims of some new regulation or tax that benefits a competing business or industry or social segment, and so with that in mind, they are going to do whatever they must – up to and including distorting the very nature of the industry they work in – in order to make sure that it’s someone else who suffers right now.
The irony of all of this, of course, is that while Nationwide, in this commercial, presents the false dilemma between serving the interests of members and the interests of shareholders in a relationship that is actually beneficial for both, they are doing so precisely because the real dilemma that exists between “us” and “everyone else” in a mixed-economy pressures them to do so.
*To be clear: there is nothing at all wrong with a business model that doesn’t have shareholders – it’s smaller operating costs may attract customers because they can charge lower premiums and/or offer better service – but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a for-profit business (it’s just the the profit is in the form of better pay for the management and employees, instead of shareholders that were funnelled through Wall Street). If that is the company’s competitive advantage, that’s fine – and they should proudly talk about it in their advertisements – but not by disparaging their competition’s business models as immoral, and tantamount to illegal.
These are two excellent, beautifully-produced, distinctively-styled examples of what a commercial should be. There are countless examples of commercials inappropriately attempting to emotionally manipulate the viewer (many of them have been documented on this website), but these are two instances of appropriate manipulation (and yes, while the word “manipulation” has a negative connotation, it is just a connotation and therefore shouldn’t preclude the objective use of that word where appropriate). Succinctly, the theme of both commercials is the direct connection between the quality of one’s work and one’s philosophical values. In the case of the Allstate commercial, this is done through an emphasis on the benevolent universe premise, and in the case of Barbasol’s through the dramatization of pride. By promoting good (ie: correct) philosophical values in the process of the promotion of material values, they are showing the consumer how the two do not exist separate from one another, or contradict one other, but in fact require and strengthen each another.
Both companies are assuming that that theme – as well as the particular themes of their respective commercials – don’t need to be stated openly – in academic philosophical terms – since each commercial is clearly just a reminder of a well-known (and therefore well-understood, because of many previous advertisements) brand (which, in that context, is itself a legitimate “informing of the consumer” and therefore satisfies advertising’s primary purpose). While it is true that these commercials lack any directly useful, particular information about the companies’ products and services, and therefore do qualify as emotional manipulation – it is appropriate emotional manipulation because unlike commercials which attempt to get the viewer to reach the wrong conclusion, these hope that he reaches the right one.
What Allstate and Barbasol expect to happen – why they expect these commercials to be successful – is that they will directly touch the emotion which was produced by the thought that any other, previous, directly-informative Allstate or Barbasol created – even if that thought was never identified, organized, and consciously retained as an explicit belief. What both companies hope to do is to validate that emotion by giving it acknowledgment (the psychological term would be “visibility”), and thereby induce the viewer to more seriously investigate the cause of it – and thereby form that conscious belief to compliment the emotion. To possess a conscious and emotional – as opposed to merely an emotional – affinity for the Allstate and Barbasol brands (as opposed to just one of their particular products featured in a more informative advertisement).
While, technically, it is true that what these commercials are selling is not “Allstate insurance policies” or “Barbasol shaving cream” as much as “Allstate the company” and “Barbasol the company” (a tactic employed, for example, by Jack in the Box some time ago, which this blog criticized), because of the context in which it is being done (both are widely-known and familiar brands), in this case there is nothing wrong with that. The reason why is because there actually is a direct connection between having the correct philosophical values and producing a good product or service. The customer can be reasonably certain that if these are the types of people he’s dealing with, even if he isn’t completely informed inside and out about the nature of what he’s considering purchasing, his cursory judgment will be sufficient and that he will be getting his money’s worth. Provided that Allstate and Barbasol then lives up to the philosophical standards each company professes to have (which they must, in order to produce a good product), having a philosophically-healthy – and therefore rational decision-making – consuming public would definitely be good for business over the long-term.
The tactic employed in these commercials is distinctly different from what Jack in the Box in it’s commercial where they were asking the viewer to prefer Jack in the Box’s products not because the “people of Jack in the Box” (as exposed through their twisted sense of humor) were actually likeable, but merely because the (equally twisted) viewer found them likable when he shouldn’t have. Jack in the Box was attempting to capitalize on the viewer’s need to fill the emotional void documented in this website’s criticism, whereas Allstate and Barbasol are here capitalizing upon the assumption that the viewer is already emotionally full (and both companies are willing to risk having him remain indifferent to, or even become hostile to, their companies should he not be). It is an exceptionally bold and noble outlook in today’s cultural landscape, and it should be recognized and applauded.
This an example of what a commercial should be. While it entertains, it does so while also informing the consumer about the product (in this case it’s existence). The entertainment value doesn’t undermine or distract from advertising’s primary purpose, so it is completely appropriate. Not only that, but the entertainment itself is actually a good example of wholesome humor. It is a mockery of the of “social metaphysician”, which deserves to be mocked. It takes such a mentality to it’s logical, absurd, self-defeating consequences, and in doing so compliments anyone who is not a “social metaphysician.” Someone who, in this example, wants avocado because it is good (and not necessarily popular), and leaves it at that (because she doesn’t need to be seen as liking the good, regardless of if she actually does).
Art is “a selective recreation of the artist’s metaphysical value judgments.” Which facts of reality the artist finds worth communicating, and which the viewer deems worth being communicated. What this means is that art exposes what it’s creator (or it’s consumer, if he approves of it) deems as important, as essential, as immutable about the nature of reality. Obviously no one, anywhere, consciously believes that reality is so bizarre that any of the things that happen in these commercials could happen, but what many people do believe is that there are certain aspects of reality which in fact actually are incomprehensible. As much as they’re loathe to admit it, what this conviction says to those who hold it is that it stands to reason, then, that such insane contradictions could come into existence if circumstances were right. Because in principle there is nothing about reality which can give anyone certainty, there is nothing about reality which precludes contradictions.
The most prominent aspect of life in which this view manifests itself is the human condition (namely the philosophical realms of morality, politics, and esthetics). When faced with a problem concerning the physical sciences which they do not understand, most people would not consciously throw up their hands and declare “who am I to know” or “such is reality” (they would simply recognize that they are not educated about that particular subject), but if it’s an internal personal problem or a social issue they’re dealing with, many times that is exactly what they do. They give up, and act purely according to their emotions. Of course, they find no clarity as a result, but this doesn’t stop them from holding onto the belief which precluded clarity from ever being achieved. Not only that, but such notions being so widely-held is precisely what gives rise to the types of social mores and political phenomenons which, from a lone individual’s perspective, (ironically and tragically) make reality (ie: the consequences of such things to one’s own personal situation) truly incomprehensible (ie: one’s fate is no longer determined by his own volition and actions, but rather the whims of those with power and influence).
Commercials such as those featured here provide added insulation from whatever gnawing regret (or guilt) the viewer might have regarding his conscious conviction about the “inherent irrationality of life.” They allow him to think that because he is not so crazy as to feel like obviously irrational things such as watermelons that look like basketballs may occur around every corner, the diffused anxiety his ignorance or misunderstanding of the human condition actually does give him isn’t a problem. The appeal of this art is that it tells the consumer “nothing’s the matter, you’re right to feel how you feel.” What the companies who use this art to sell their products are banking upon is that the relief that message provides will endear their company to the consumer in a much more fundamental and personal way than the virtue of their (generally unvirtuous or indistinguishable) products ever could on their own.
“Are you, the average self-supporting (and yes, we know, overburdened) American, plagued by a constant, yet strangely elusive feeling that you are being robbed of the best things in life – and not through ‘civilized’ processes meant to serve ‘noble’ ends, but only through the implied threat of raw, unabashed brutality and only to serve the interests of plain, naked evil? We here at Armor All understand what you’re going through, and we would like to help you to feel better. We want you to know that while it’s okay to have those feelings, the thoughts that they spring from are mistaken. It’s an honest, understandable mistake, but a mistake nevertheless. You see, if you really were being robbed of the best that life has to offer, something like this is how it would happen. Is it happening like that? Of course it isn’t, silly. There are no large, brutal men – archetypes of everything that is the antithesis of civilization – blatantly coming into your life and taking your values from you. Yes, there are things being taken from you, but it’s in bits and pieces, and we can assure you that nothing that is being taken from you is literally being spent on the mindless, self-indulgent feasts that barbarians of centuries past are so famous for. It’s the 21st century. There aren’t really any barbarians living in castles somewhere enjoying your wealth, right? Of course not. That’s silly. You need to relax, take a deep breath, and look at things from a different perspective. Besides, let’s just say for a moment that you were right: that what it happening to you is tantamount to what is happening here, in this commercial. Even if that were true (which clearly it is not, right?) wouldn’t you kind of deserve it? I mean, can you really blame someone for taking advantage of you when you’re not even taking care of yourself? It’s all your fault, really.”
Now we here at Armor All… well, it’s not our place to tell you which of these explanations are true. You have to decide for yourself whether or not you’re just overreacting, and if you deserve what’s happening to you should you decide that you’re not. All we are concerned with is that you, the consumer, take a bit of solace from that feeling that haunts when you watch our commercial. We want you to know that if you’re just overreacting, or if you’re not but you deserve what is happening to you, that someone out there is aware of what you are going through. The experience of being seen and understood on a level that is so deep that maybe you didn’t understand it yourself (or if you did, you certainly couldn’t express it to anyone because it would be politically incorrect) is very cathartic. You deserve catharsis. In fact, you deserve it so much that we want you to have a miniature version of that experience whenever you feel confused or alone. You’re not confused and you’re not alone… you just… well, you just don’t have our car wax. Now we know that sounds stupid, but you see, because we can’t sell our product based solely upon it’s objective merits (they’re too similar to our competitors’), and because even if we could we can’t count anything except impulse purchases that are not necessarily rational economically for our short-term sales figures (and let’s be honest: in today’s economy the short-term is all that matters), we ask you to please keep us in mind the next time you’re in the market for car wax. It’s only fair, right? I mean, after all, we gave you good feelings. Shouldn’t we be rewarded for that?”