From the March 2011 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

A Star-Crossed Tale

A “fun” story turned into a PR problem for one insurance company

On Jan. 27, Allstate Insurance thought it would have some fun with a story that had come out just a couple of weeks before about changes in people’s zodiac signs. The original story, by columnist Bill Ward of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, referred to an explanation by astronomy instructor Parke Kunkle that since nearly five millennia had passed since the original 12 signs of the zodiac had been devised, changes in the earth’s alignment relative to the constellations that make up the zodiac meant that the original boundaries of the 12 signs no longer applied.

The piece went on to say that, in fact, there was now a new sign, Ophiuchus, which fell smack in the middle of Scorpio and Sagittarius, displacing every other sign in the cycle by several days and changing many people’s signs, depending on where they fell within its time period.

This led to much speculation, online and off, about how valid people’s signs were, and under which signs they fell now that Ophiuchus’s existence was common knowledge, and much heated discussion about how one’s original sign still governed, or had never governed, their character and/or behavior. Astrologers pooh-poohed the fuss, saying they’d known about it all along and there was nothing to get excited about since there were actually two zodiac systems, and—well, if you need more information on that, there’s plenty on Google. In an update, Kunkel said he was astonished at the uproar caused by the news.

What, you may ask, has this to do with insurance? Nothing, actually, except that Allstate Insurance thought it would be amusing to look at people’s driving records based on their zodiac signs to see if there were any patterns that emerged regarding accidents, safe driving records, etc. No other factors were taken into account, such as age, number of miles driven, and other pertinent information; the study was done strictly as a lighthearted look at how astrology might or might not appear to influence people’s driving habits—much the same as seeing whether people’s preference for chocolate ice cream or butterscotch sauce might determine their book choices at the local library or the baseball teams they root for. In other words, totally irrelevant.

Well, the study was done, and a press release duly issued that really was a lot of fun to read. It found that staid, stolid Virgos, with their passion for organization and order, were actually far more likely—700% more likely, in fact—to be in an accident, whereas volatile, passionate, tempestuous Scorpios were the safest drivers, being involved in only 1.5% of accidents. Ophiuchus, the “new” sign, was the second safest of the lot.

Poor Allstate. It became the focus of a firestorm of protest as people raged that their zodiac signs were being used in underwriting (they weren’t), or that rates would be changed based on their sign (they won’t). Media outlets such as the Chicago Tribune, INN, blogs and websites were besieged with complaints and vituperation over something meant to be an enjoyable diversion.

Allstate, understandably upset at the way the public had reacted, rushed to issue a new release to reassure everyone that their underwriting was not based on one’s sun sign, moon sign, or anything else. The statement said, “We recently issued a press release on zodiac signs and accident rates, which led to some confusion around whether astrological signs are part of the underwriting process. Astrological signs have absolutely no role in how we base coverage and set rates. Rating by astrology would not be actuarially sound. We realize that our hard-working customers view their insurance expense very seriously. So do we. We deeply apologize for any confusion this may have caused.”

Spokeswoman Laura Strykowski stressed that the “study” had been strictly for entertainment, and that Allstate most certainly did not use the zodiac to determine anything in its underwriting, and had no plans to do anything of the kind. It was really very sad, because Allstate never had any intention that people should take the “study” seriously.

There are two lessons here for advisors—well, perhaps three. First, of course, you can and should reassure any clients concerned about the possibility of paying more for their auto coverage because they’re Virgos or Leos that there is absolutely nothing to worry about, and that Allstate does not issue policies based on the zodiac. You might also want to remind clients that when they see such stories, they should actually read disclaimers, since they often contain important information.

Second, this is a cautionary tale about how seriously people take seemingly irrelevant information, and how that might play into the way they approach money. It turned out that many of the irate responses came from people who were very much attached to their zodiac signs: not just Allstate, but Kunkle suffered, besieged by messages that demanded, among other things, “Give me back my sign!” Think back on some of your clients’ money behaviors and have a conversation with them about anything that seems unusual or illogical. They may have a perfectly good (to them) reason for doing as they did. If you understand that, you will be better able to help them.

Third, and at least as important as the second, it’s also a warning to be very clear about what you express to clients and how you express it. Find the right way to get through to them the information that it’s most essential they should know. After all, are you sure that they get the message you’re sending when you talk with them about their finances?

You might want to ask before they leave your office. Particularly if you’re an Ophiuchus.

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