Advertising with a moral compass. Exploitation or doing the right thing?

August 20, 2008

“When it’s people doing the right thing, they call it responsibility. When it’s an insurance company, they call it Liberty Mutual. Responsibility. What’s your policy?”

And so goes the copy in this feel-good campaign for Liberty Mutual done by Hill Holiday in Boston. The films show real people stopping what they’re doing in order to help others, one after another. Contributing to the good karma in our universe. Paying it forward, as it were. While this is hardly a new idea in our culture (the Judea-Christian belief system is based on it), it is striking sentiment for communications from a large multi-national. Let me rephrase that: Lot’s of companies talk about what nice companies they are but few endorse human kindness as an operating principle. Either way, the key to this thing working is whether consumers buy into it. If Joe America believes insurance companies are a soul-crushing matrix of liars and paperwork, he is not apt to appreciate the “do unto others” approach. Or, and this is what the marketing team at Liberty Mutual undoubtedly hopes, upon receiving these heartwarming messages, Joe America will soften to the company like cold butter on a hot muffin.

Either way, I admire this creative. By going back to biblical pretext (do unto others, etc), LM has actually modernized the rhetoric. “Like a good neighbor,” is an overt claim about State Farm’s personnel, as is the “Good Hands People” for Allstate. The LM films depict a succession of civilians doing good deeds without selfish motives. Which leads to more good karma and, well, the world gets better. By calling this behavior “responsibility” Liberty Mutual suffuses their strategy with a moral imperative. I’m curious what others think about this move. Are you impressed by it…or depressed?

Interestingly enough, in my new novel, The Happy Soul Industry God solicits an advertising agency to come up with concepts for marketing Heaven or, as the angelic brand manager in the story puts it: “goodness in all of its forms.” Kind of like the LM brief, isn’t it? In my book, “How are you?” becomes the organizing principle in a new campaign for Heaven. If people are honest in their answers, they realize something is missing in their lives and that something is God.

Examine the “How Are You?” blog at Happy Soul’s website. People are willing to unburden themselves online. To be rigorously honest. Maybe people are just as open to helping others as well, and not just friends and family. But “Everyone!” as Bono often exhorts in his famously uplifting concerts. Taken further, maybe we are all looking for a higher power (of our understanding) to help us on a daily basis. Could we, as a society, be dusting off our moral compasses? The Liberty Mutual campaign suggests as much. The Hill Holiday planner clearly saw something happening in the culture, to the consumer, which could alter the category. Paying it forward became a creative strategy.

There’s a great saying in recovery houses: If you want to improve your self-esteem, do estimable things. That’s what Liberty Mutual is telling to “do” in their commercials. Is that an appropriate strategy? A bigger question: If the quest for spirituality is becoming a strategic platform for advertisers is that exploitation or an example of doing the next right thing?


5 Responses to “Advertising with a moral compass. Exploitation or doing the right thing?”

  1. Voice of Reason said

    You’re right to question this work. I kind of like it, even if I think it’s pandering.

  2. Jason Fox said

    The difficulty with using “rightness” in advertising is selecting which moral standard one will use. This is easy for a privately held company, and generally a believable tactic. If Chick-Fil-A decides to do a campaign explaining why they’re closed on Sundays, well, I’ll buy into it. They’re founder is a Christian man who doesn’t believe in making his people work on Sunday. He still owns the company, so it reflects his values.

    But what about publicly traded companies? How firm can they be in their stances before running into trouble with the government, the ACLU (or, conversely, the AFA) or other special-interest groups? Like their shareholders, for instance. Basically, they have two choices: Go with espousing traits no one will ever argue against (like the Liberty Mutual campaign), or use focus-group morality. The former can seem a bit toothless while the latter smacks of opportunism.

    Personally, I enjoy the Liberty Mutual work. I don’t quite buy it, as it’s hard to believe anything from an insurance company, but if they can back it up operationally, it’ll stick. And I’d like to see more companies attempting to me “right.” Assuming, of course, their standards agree with my own. Otherwise, they’ll be espousing wrong. Ah, sweet conundrum.

    As someone who creates advertising, I try to do so in a morally responsible way. But that’s a topic for my own blog some day.


    P.S., Give Mr. Swain a hard time for me if you see him.

  3. dandunlop said

    I agree with the sentiment expressed in your post. And, as one of the folks commenting already mentioned, the proof is in the pudding; does Liberty Mutual live up to the brand promise? Even if we love the feel of the promise, whether they deliver on the promise is what really matters. Great creative from Liberty Mutual.


  4. SRP said

    Look at us: a bunch of ad guys talking about the higher calling of brands. Nary a mean-spirited thought in the lot. Thanks, guys.

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