Monday, December 7, 2009



No, I'm not kidding. This is no satire. If there is any correlation between broadcast airtime and importance in life, then car insurance must be the most important thing in life.

Watch network television for an hour. I guarantee that you will see at least four commercials for car insurance. During the same hour, you might only see one or two advertisements for erectile dysfunction or prostate pills. There might be an appeal to send money to children in Africa, or the odd statement from a tax accountant or a lawyer--who usually wants you to join a class-action lawsuit involving prescription medication or car insurance fraud. Mixed messages?

But I digress. Let's get back to the real question: What's so important about car insurance? Why are companies spending so much money--and wasting so much of my time--simply to say that they are selling indemnity contracts for my car? I don't even have a car; why the hell would I want car insurance? They talk about low prices (Allstate), discounts (Progressive) and savings (GEICO). Some take a "trust me" approach (Allstate); others try to throw in humor (GEICO and Progressive). Some provide more specific information, like the fact that they also sell boating insurance, garage insurance, homeowner's insurance, life insurance, renter's insurance and lawn insurance. Other provide no information at all, just a slogan and a phone number.

Animated geckos with cockney accents do not provide commercially relevant information necessary to make a reasonable free market decision, no matter what GEICO's Board says. On the other hand, advertisers don't care about providing information relevant to a reasonable free market decision. They just want you to remember them and buy. It doesn't matter if it's the "most reasonable choice" you've ever made. Advertisers target the visual sense: "See this? Now buy this." That's how it works.

This simple strategy explains why car insurance commercials dominate the airwaves. If a company has enough money to advertise, it will advertise as much as it can. After all, an idiot is more likely to remember something he sees ten times in two hours than something he saw only once during the same two hours. Advertisers like GEICO, Allstate and Progressive know that, so they deluge viewers' senses over and over again. Even if people don't think about car insurance every single day in their lives, advertisers make sure that when they finally do think about car insurance, they also think of their company. By bombarding the senses, advertisers create a mental connection. When the mind strays onto the topic "car insurance," it triggers the connection: "Must buy GEICO." When that happens, advertising has done its work. Advertisers don't want reflection. They want reflex.

Broadcast airtime is a precious commodity. It is very expensive. It can reach millions of people in an instant. It has the potential to spread knowledge, understanding and enrichment. If something appears in a broadcast medium, it carries weight: Someone had to pay a huge sum to air it. To convey a message in such a costly medium, the message must be "important." In that light, does it not reveal something about our society that commercials are the only messages that regularly appear in this medium? The broadcast medium could be used to enrich the population with meaningful messages. But in the end, it merely barrages them with animated geckos, cavemen, obnoxious women chirping about discounts and various entreaties to buy boating insurance. After all, car insurance is important: It's on TV all the time.

Some will inevitably say that commercial messages are the only way that networks can finance their non-commercial messages. But most non-commercial material on most television channels is utterly unenlightening. In many cases, it even bows to commercial pressures. Networks will not broadcast material that alienates their commercial sponsors. In a strange way, then, commercial messages dictate which non-commercial messages ultimately appear on television. Advertisers will not advertise on programs that do not draw people likely to buy their products. This limits the kinds of messages that people hear on television because everything comes back to commerce: The programmer must placate the advertiser first. Only then can he exercise some expressive freedom. Without the advertiser, he can broadcast nothing. Who's more important then: The car insurance company or the viewer who wants to see a show about medieval England?

In my view, this is all very pathetic. In the end, car insurance gets more play than momentous world issues in the United States. It may seem absurd to suggest that car insurance is the most important thing in life. Yet I promise you that you will see more GEICO commercials on television than programs about Darfur, the health care bill or the War in Iraq. Those things may be more "objectively" important, but they do not pay the network's expenses. Insurance companies do. So we hear their messages more than any other messages.

That's why it's perhaps not so absurd to say that car insurance is the most important thing in life. Our country dedicates more airtime to it than virtually any other single subject. If airtime is as precious as we hear, doesn't that mean that car insurance is important? It's getting all the airtime, so it must be important. Very important, even.

No comments: