I recently got to watch a tremendous documentary entitled Salesman, from 1969. I read about it on a film blog as one of those films every cinemaphile ought to see, and for a long time, I had the most difficulty tracking it down. How grateful I was, then, to see that you can currently watch the movie for free on Hulu.
Salesman is a really important movie because it was one of the first true examples of what they call cinema verite, or direct cinema. Prior to this, documentaries always had that “voice of God” narration because camera equipment just did not have the sound synching that we take for granted today. By the late 60s, though film sound gear got small enough that a two-man filming crew could be anywhere with their cameras and film as if they were flies on the wall. From this simple tech innovation, the modern documentary was born. And one of its first children was Salesman, a film that a number of critics consider one of the best American films ever made, and in 1992, was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as having particular cultural, historic or aesthetic significance. It is easy to see why.
If you have not seen this movie, it’s really compelling stuff. The film follows a team of four Boston-based bible salesmen as they pitch a fairly overpriced product door-to-door. it is the kind of mirthless grind that makes Glengarry Glen Ross seem like a sitcom in comparison. And it is also an interesting look into a bygone age when the notion of work ethic was much different than it is today. One gets the feeling that these guys, who probably all served in WWII, simply took that militaristic mindset from their war days and applied it to work. The job was the job, and they had to get ti done, whatever the cost. Add to it a commissions-only gig with zero meaningful support from the home office, hard sells to people who don’t really need (or can afford) your product, and long stretches away from home and you suddenly see how bleak this kind of life can be.
For a lot of people today, Salesman would be the grim underbelly of the age already romanticized by the hit show Mad Men. But more importantly, it offers a glimpse into the business of selling that has formed our modern disdain of being sold to. Bible salesmen were always on the fringe of door-to-door selling, so perhaps they never quite reached the cliche status that encyclopedia salesmen achieved. But even that has nothing on the cliche of the door-to-door insurance salesman, which has become a metaphor for “sales transaction you really want no part of.”
One of the first things I learned when I joined National Underwriter, and having come over to cover the life & health world from the property & casualty world is this: P&C insurance is bought. L&H insurance is sold. It sounds like a little thing, but boy, it sure isn’t. Life and health insurance is no less important a product to securing people’s long-term well-being as any other kind of insurance. In fact, it is probably quite a bit more important. And somehow, the process of actually buying these things is still seen as a necessary evil. The people who sell it are seen as intrusions.
Not everybody thinks this way, of course. There are millions of satisfied L&H customers all over the world who get the product and get why they need it and are appreciative that they have somebody they trust who can sell it to them. But for those to whom insurance remains arcane, or who already have some mistrust of the business (the unfolding investigations into claims payments is sure to exacerbate that), or who simply can’t extrapolate their needs enough to understand why life and health insurance is so important, to be sold to on this front is a most unwelcome thing.