Firms like John Hancock and The Hartford face a special challenge in building and promoting their brand identities: What they fundamentally stand for is financial responsibility, which at the end of the day is kind of boring. (That's less true for firms built around the idea that financial responsibility is best achieved by way of rapid-fire stock trading, but that's another story.) Recently, these two companies have produced ads that, whatever their relative strengths and weaknesses, are not boring. The Hartford ads involve saving for retirement and estate planning. The John Hancock ads, which are less current but still worth noting, generally turn on the theme of unpredictability as illustrated by scenes of adoption and divorce, among other things.
Hartford's ads: One spot getting a lot of play recently begins with a Kevin Spacey-esque guy in a suit in an office. "Nah, I've never really been serious about investing. Mutual funds, all that other stuff? When I've got money, I spend it." He pulls on some gloves. An assistant approaches: "They're ready for you." He pulls an odd stocking cap over his head. "Hey, can't take it with you." At this point, another guy sets him on fire, and he leaps out a window. He's a stuntman. "People who live day to day don't need to take investing seriously," a voiceover says wisely. "For the rest of us, there's The Hartford mutual funds."
An earlier ad is set in the office of the executor of some rich man's estate. A widow is present--a young blonde. Also present is a more mature woman: The dead tycoon's first wife. The executor reads from the will to the effect that Blondie gets the condo in Boca and the yacht, and so she pictures herself sipping champagne on the high seas. And wife 1.0? She gets the universal life insurance policy from Hartford Life. Cut back to Blondie's fantasy, and as she sips, a much larger yacht cruises past and the first wife toasts her from the deck. Blondie looks stricken. "Now more than ever, estate planning can pay off." Both of these ads close with Hartford's curiously XFL-ish tagline: "Bring it on."
What's so funny? The latter spot came to my attention when a reader sent me a note about it a few weeks back: "The ad leaves me a little shocked as divorce, adultery, etc. are touchy issues. But ultimately, this ad is a riot." It's true that the ad is, at best, ambivalent about a scenario a lot of people might find thoroughly unamusing. It's also true that it's pretty clever. My own take is that the more recent, window-leaper ad is funnier, but its message is a lot less sharp. Composite grade: B.
John Hancock's ads: The setting is an airport, the customs gate. Various arriving passengers, all Asian, wait in line. Close up of an Asian baby. Two white women, clearly a couple, coo over the infant. "Oh, can you believe this?" the first woman sighs. "Yeah," the other says, "we're a family." White type appears against a black background: "Annuities, Life Insurance, Long Term Care Insurance. Mutual funds. Insurance for the unexpected. Investments for the opportunities."
Another ad in the same series is set in a suburban kitchen. An average guy, who seems tense, is talking to a woman who looks weary. There's something sort of jagged about the whole scene. "I just think that you can do more," she's saying. Upon repeated viewings I finally concluded that they're arguing about child support. "It's not about the money," she continues, "You just don't get it." "Look," the guy replies, "Victoria wants me to move out to California with her." The woman's eyes dart around a little, pool up a bit, and lock back on her ex. "What are you gonna tell Joel?" Silence. "We'll tell him," she finally says. The same type closes out the ad.
Hmmm: I also heard about this series from readers before I saw it. And the immigration/adoption spot got a fair amount of attention after some U.S. adoption agencies raised fears of a draconian response from the Chinese government, which does not authorize adoptions to gay or lesbian couples. But of all the spots in the campaign, it's the one that, to me, delivered the clearest message on behalf of financial responsibility. (For prior columns on how advertisers think about homosexuality, click here and here.) It's the other spot I've highlighted that strikes me as the weirdest in the series: The Cassavetes-like ex-lovers' quarrel. Nobody wants to imagine him- or herself in such scenes, and it seems strange for Hancock to cast its brand against them. Another spot in the series, in which a man scopes out a nursing home for his father, leaves the viewer similarly grim. The ads get your attention, but I'll go along with the comment of a reader who saw one of these spots during the World Series: "An entire roomful of people at my house got quiet, until someone finally said, 'What the hell was that all about?' Everyone laughed uncomfortably and went back to what they were talking about. I don't think it made anyone want to buy insurance." Exactly. Composite grade for the series: C.