With all of the distractions that abound and the Niagara flow of information coming out of the various media, how does one go about getting the attention of the public?

One glaring success in answer to this question is Britney Spears. Spears, by means of her raunchy performances featuring low rise pants and her belly button, has certainly captured the attention of young girls just about everywhere. Visit any shopping mall or pass by a school and its wall-to-wall belly buttons.

And there is real commitment, for most look like their pants are about to fall off, thereby demonstrating a willingness to endure some discomfort as a show of allegiance to this fador fashion statement, if you prefer.

I will repress the urge to comment on the sanity of it allmy only point being that, despite the distractions of war talk, terrorism and the like, with the right symbol, you can attract attention and modify behavior.

Needless to say, advertisers of all stripes have been quick to capitalize on this craze by gracing their ads with belly buttons galore. But where does that leave the insurance business trying to deliver a more sober message to the masses? Neither Snoopy nor the Aflac duck has a sexy belly button to compete in this arena. But we do have our own symbols.

Over the years we have used many symbols to convey the notion of strength and dependability. The Rock of Gibraltar, eagles, lights that never fail, giant redwood trees (now replaced by a breaching whale) all speak, or have spoken, to what we are. I would not want to downplay the importance of that message, but the more important message relating to what we do has not been so prominently featured.

For years, agents have clamored for more effort to let the public know about the important role that their work and the products they sell play in the lives of those they serve.

The cries from the field have become particularly strident when the media has denigrated the business with unfair criticism. A classic example is the hatchet job recently done on UnumProvident by NBCs Dateline. The program was outrageous and demonstrated how the media can take a few facts and weave them into a great lie, thereby rendering a disservice to the public and harm to a vital industry.

David Halberstam, in his book, “The Powers That Be,” described in detail how the media uses its power to sell its point of view by selective reporting. The central point that I gleaned from this book was his assertion that “the real power of the press is the power to decide what to report.” We need very strong symbols to overcome that kind of power.

What I am slowly building up to isthank heavens for LIFE, the Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education. Simply put, the real life stories featured in LIFEs ads are at last, in a most effective way, telling the story of what we do and why it is so important.

The effectiveness of this program is, I believe, reflected in sales statistics showing an increase in life insurance sales in three of the most recent quarters. It could be argued that the events of September 11 may have been the impetus behind this surge in sales, but a more reasoned conclusion might be: September 11 defined the problems, but LIFE pointed the way to the solution.

For the past several years, one of the highlights of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors annual meeting has been a banquet where the persons featured in LIFEs real-life stories ads were honored. As the honorees–beneficiaries of our products–told their story, those of us in the audience experienced a renewed sense of pride in the work we do.

I believe it is clear that LIFE is having an impact on current buyers and prospects of life and health insurance. But that is not the end of the story, for LIFE is laying the groundwork for impact upon the next generation of potential users of our products as well. LIFEs “Next Generation” program will be shown to 2.5 million upper school students in 30,000 classrooms across the country. This multi-media series has already drawn awards and accolades from prestigious communication organizations.

LIFE is planting seeds that will bear fruit long after the current “navel gazing” has given way to a new fad brought to us by a fresh “celebrity du jour.” Fads can be exciting, but in the long run, education is more useful and that is what LIFE is all about.

But LIFE has another important audience that is crucial to our business. I refer to the agency force, which also needs a bit of inspiration from time to time. There appears to be evidence that the commitment of life insurance people to our core product is on the rise and that cannot help but bode well for the companies and the public.

David Woods and his staff at LIFE have done an outstanding job in the short time they have been in existence. I congratulate them and the great companies and organizations that have funded this vital effort in consumer education.

I understand that LIFE is currently in its periodic fund-raising mode. I hope that when LIFE calls, supporters will pledge an amount that they can view with pride.

We live in a time that calls for action rather than just a wishful wait and sell posture. Or, as one cowboy sage put it: “A wishbone aint no substitute for a backbone.” Our culture and our business need a strong backbone.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, October 28, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.