Tuesday, February 2, 2010



I reserve especially harsh criticism for insurance companies. In the past, I have mocked them in satires and rebuked them in essays. I know what insurance companies are all about: Demand money from you, then stubbornly refuse to pay when disaster strikes. Neither cockney-speaking GEICO® geckos nor ditzy discount-dishing Progressive® saleswomen nor confident black men telling me "Allstate's® stand" will ever persuade me that insurance companies are anything other than what I already know: Insatiable, vicious, unsympathetic private profit machines that capitalize on human qualms about the future.

Insurance companies advertise all the time. I use insurance advertising as a thematic backdrop for my criticism. I analyze insurance advertising to show inconsistencies between messages and practices. For example, I have analyzed GEICO®'s vacuous advertising several times to show that commercial actors rarely provide the most essential information to consumers, like information about prices, risks and even services. Rather, they merely create "visual candy" that forges a mental link between the product and the company. This implants a sensory impression in the viewer, which then yields an increased likelihood that he will remember the image when it comes time to buy insurance. This has nothing to do with educating the consumer about advantages and disadvantages between competing products. It is merely a cynical ploy to trigger a mental reflex to buy something in particular circumstances.

But this is what advertising is all about. It is not about education or even information. It is about sensory perception. For commercial actors, the end is always profit. To make a profit in the free market, you need customers. To get customers, you need to convince people to part with their money. To make customers part with their money, you need to make sure they know you have something they need or want. Advertising does that: It merely advises potential customers that a company has something they need or want. It shows it to them in a memorable way. It plays to their senses. Once it makes an impression, it increases the chance that they will spend their money in the right place. And that fulfills the profit goal.

Still, my purpose today is not to analyze sensory mechanics in American advertising. Rather, I am writing today to take a hard look at a particular advertising message on its own terms. In the end, I will reveal its absurdity.

Insurance companies use slogans to reinforce their visual advertising. In addition to leaving a visual impression with consumers, they also leave an audible one. For example, GEICO® not only hammers a visual connection between geckos and car insurance. It also pairs the image with the ever-repeated phrase: "Fifteen minutes could save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance." Allstate® uses the phrase: "You're in good hands." And State Farm® matches its imagery with: "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there." Sometimes State Farm even sings the slogan to make sure you remember it. Hey, they need to make sure you reflexively think State Farm® when you need some insurance. And people remember tunes a lot better than just spoken words.

"Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there." What a curious slogan. It reflects an incredibly naïve view of human nature. And that's ironic, because State Farm obviously does not hold that view. I know for a fact it doesn't. I have litigated cases involving State Farm, and I can tell you firsthand that they do not treat claimants--or their opponents--as "good neighbors." In fact, they treat them as mortal enemies whom they would rather see die than pay a red cent.

What is a "good neighbor," anyway? Do people really like their neighbors? Do neighbors actively help each other in this society? It sure doesn't seem so to me. In that light, I find it bizarre that State Farm adopted a slogan that equates its insurance service with the service you can expect from a "good neighbor." In my experience, I have generally found that my neighbors could not give a damn about whether I lived, died or prospered. Some have said hello. Some have not. Actually, most did not. Most just went to work, came home, locked their doors, attended to their own shit and went to bed without even looking at me in the hallway.

In fact, most of my relationships with neighbors over the years have been negative. If they knock on my door, it's usually to complain about something I'm doing. They never stop over to check on me or to ask how my life is going. They never volunteer to help me with anything. To the contrary, they just grumble about me and spread gossip if they suspect me doing something "inappropriate."

And they certainly don't make house calls if I'm suffering a crisis. If I have a problem, they'll never know about it. Even if they did, I seriously doubt they would rush in to help me.

And why should they? American law says that we are not our brothers' keepers. If you pass a person dying on the street, you have absolutely no legal obligation to render assistance, even if you're a doctor. That reflects our society's views about "neighbors" much more than any corny State Farm slogan. That is why I find it flat-out laughable for State Farm to equate its insurance service with the "help" you can expect from a "neighbor" in the United States. You might as well say that you won't provide any help at all, because that's how much help you'll receive from your neighbor. In truth, your neighbor is much more likely to complain about you or even report you to the authorities than help you in a pinch.

This is the world we inhabit.

If this is the level of support we can expect from neighbors, what can we expect from State Farm? State Farm says that it will be "there" for you "like a good neighbor." Well, no neighbor has never been "there" to help me with anything, let alone a "good" one. By that standard, I guess that means that State Farm will leave you hanging just the way your neighbors do.

But State Farm has a greater legal obligation to help than some undifferentiated neighbor. After all, if you pay money for a State Farm insurance policy, you enter into a contractual relationship. Contracts mean that two people promise to do things for each other on pain of legal penalty. Contracts create legal duties to act or refrain from acting. Neighbors have no such duties. In that sense, if you buy insurance from State Farm, you are buying something more than a neighbor's obligation. You are enlisting services for a fee. You are engaging in commerce. You are creating a legal relationship. If State Farm acts like a "neighbor" after you hire it as a "servant," it would violate its legal duties to you. Hey, you signed a contract so that State Farm would give you more than a neighbor would give. But that's still not that much, because neighbors have no obligation to give you anything at all.

Of course, State Farm does not want you to think this way. It wants you to think that neighbors help each other when they are in need. In fact, it wants you to accept the fantasy that your neighbors will actually sacrifice themselves to help you for no reward. That is an extremely Christian delusion; and State Farm fully exploits it. After all, Christian doctrine advises us to "love our neighbor as ourselves" and to help those in need without expectation of reward. State Farm taps into that notion to cast itself as a "magnanimous patron," not a profit-hungry private corporation. And State Farm knows that many consumers equate the term "neighbor" with selfless Christianity.

This is cynical exploitation at its worst. While Christ might have helped his undifferentiated neighbor without hope of reward, most neighbors are not Christ-like. In fact, experience tells us the opposite.

State Farm is no exception. During Hurricane Katrina, State Farm acted exactly like the neighbors I know: It refused to help out at all when people really needed help. State Farm wiggled out from paying "hurricane damages" because it said its policies did not cover flooding. In my own experience practicing law, I recall a case in which State Farm refused to pay its own customer's $60,000 medical bill because it disputed the doctor's belief that the injury was "permanent." So it left its "neighbor" holding the bag with a $60,000 bill and a deformed arm--even though the "neighbor" dutifully paid his premium every month. How's that for service?

But that's how neighbors treat each other. So I guess State Farm was just doing as it advertised: It was just acting like a neighbor.

I find it utterly shameless for State Farm to exploit Christian overtones in the word "neighbor" to lull customers into thinking it actually cares about their welfare. No private corporation cares about anything beyond its quarterly profits. That is the law. Corporations owe no duties to anyone except their own shareholders; and shareholders could care less about magnanimity toward non-shareholders. They want money; and they don't really care if they're "nice" about getting it.

Commerce and Christianity just don't mix. State Farm knows that. It simply proceeds on the assumption that consumers are too stupid to understand the same thing.

Then again, most advertising functions on that premise. If people were too smart, it would really hurt business.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

actually the law went one step further now. if you stop and help a victim and somehow made it worse, the victim can sue you. and i totally agree with you on the insurance companies. i've been saying that forever and i'm not along. something needs to be done with them.