Archive for September 2014
The purpose of insurance is risk management. A person buys insurance because she believes that the risk of paying premiums without ever having to file a claim (ie: “wasting money”) is less than the risk of having an incident and, not having insurance, having to pay the costs entirely out of pocket. Simultaneously, an insurance company agrees to sell a person an insurance policy because it believes that the risk of having to pay a claim filed by that person is less than the sum total of the money it will collect from her via premiums. It’s a text book case of quid pro quo – but why is it a quid pro quo? Precisely because the level of risk is measured correctly. How, exactly, is it measured correctly? By turning to the only thing anyone has to use as a predictor of future behavior: past behavior.
Why, then, does this commercial denigrate (ie: smear as unfair) the practice of insurance companies factoring in past behavior when they determine premium prices? It is because Liberty Mutual knows that most of the culture believes in altruism. The company is attempting to capitalize on the false dichotomy created by that moral code (ie: the belief that any action is either altruistic in nature or predatory in nature, but never mutually-beneficial; or even mutually-harmful). Because of that false-dichotomy, many people would regard an increase in their insurance premiums not as a legitimate response to the increase in risk that their behavior indicates, but simply an arbitrary act of “greed” by the party with greater leverage in a relationship. This is why the slogan “Hey insurance companies, news flash: nobody’s perfect” is expected to resonate, despite the fact that the very act of selling an insurance policies and charging premiums is acknowledgement that no one is perfect! (ie: if anything, the act of not raising someone’s rates after she causes an accident, or having an a priori policy of “accident forgiveness”, would be an evasion of that fact).
“The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve “the common good.” It is true that capitalism does — if that catch-phrase has any meaning — but this is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.” -Ayn Rand
Although this commercial will be interpreted by most to be a glorification of altruism (even though what’s on display is actually benevolence), it is nevertheless a beautiful dramatization of the value of capitalism. Walmart’s message is that it (a capitalist, for-profit organization) plays not just an optional, but an essential role in “altruistic” (read: benevolent) acts. In other words: without selfishness preceding it, there is no “common good” of the type on display here. It’s sad (and worrying) that capitalist organizations have to appeal to the popular reverence for self-sacrifice in order to be (begrudgingly) accepted, but it’s heartening to see that they’re at least not yet completely ashamed of the fact that they deserve just as much credit (if not more) than the “altruists” who use their products in order to do their good deeds.
The purpose of sports heroes – the value that they trade in exchange for the fortunes they earn – is to provide the public with inspiration. Their feats are supposed to be a supplement to the average person’s every day life. A way of helping the average person live his own life more heroically. The problem, however, is that in recent decades (due to the stagnating economy and disintegrating culture), the inspiration of sports heroes has transformed from a supplement to a substitute source of inspiration and pride. People are more and more quite literally living vicariously through famous athletes – and instead of the past time of paying attention to them being a net gain, it is often now a net loss (ie: a way to evade one’s problems, instead of an inspiration to face them and solve them). That is what this commercial exploits.
Usain Bolt, by illegally enjoying himself in what turns out to be someone else’s hot tub, is symbolically (albeit likely unknowingly) communicating his status in the culture, and the source of his (relatively greater) wealth (as compared to previous eras). His presence there is an acknowledgement of the fact that he doesn’t have what a man of similar accomplishments, decades ago, failed to have simply because he is better than that predecessor, but precisely because people are willing to now give a man like him more than they were before.
Of course, this is a dramatic, absurdly unrealistic expression of these facts – and that is precisely why it is expected to work to sell Puma brand merchandise.
The commercial provides the viewer with a means of rationalizing away his (subconscious) awareness of his inappropriately high interest in the sporting activity of other people. He is able to tell himself that if he were really giving the likes of Bolt more attention than they deserve, then that (ie: the use of his hot tub, and the affections of the women in his life) is what would be taken from him. He isn’t allowing that much to be intruded upon, so therefore he must not be over-valuing the athletic achievements of others.
The rationalization provides a moment’s reprieve from the anxiety which comes from having a disorganized or arbitrary value structure. The memory of that reprieve remains in the viewer’s mind, ready to prompt a recitation of the rationalization whenever the anxiety returns or becomes too much to bear (which it will, since the only thing which can ensure that it doesn’t return and grow is actually reducing one’s interest in sports figures to rational levels). That reoccurred rationalization, Puma hopes, will be closely associated (in the viewer’s mind) with Puma the brand, and then – hopefully – if the person happens to be in the market for sports apparel, he will consider taking a closer look at their products, and perhaps making a purchase.
This is the kind of manipulative, destructive, fundamentally non-capitalist behavior that capitalist organizations have to engage in when they’re mired in the unpredictable flux of a mixed economy, where only the short-term is certain.