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Hit 'Em Where It Hurts

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Over the last year, I have read ample articles, white papers and studies chronicling the difficulty in selling individual life in the U.S. marketplace. Last year’s dismal numbers from LIMRA surely confirm that, but more recent numbers suggest that at last, life sales are back on the rise. That’s all well and good, but the fact remains that according to the Insurance Information Institute, life sales in general still were outperformed in 2010 by health and disability insurance, and by annuities (by a large margin).

This is nothing new to folks who market and sell life. And while I have seen a number of innovative efforts to spur life sales–such as re-branding it as a kind of safe investment or pairing it with annuities to hedge against the notion of longevity risk–I have to wonder if maybe individual life isn’t selling better because the industry simply isn’t trying hard enough to make its case.

Don’t get me wrong–the life industry is hardly a confederation of slackers. And it has been interesting to see the proliferation of television ad campaigns from major life and annuity companies these days. But how effective are these campaigns, really? And what are these advertisers expectations?

I bring all of this up because I recently came across a series of absolutely shattering advertisements for a Thai life insurance company. Just go on YouTube and search for “Thai life insurance,” and you’ll come up with a few of them. Give them a watch, and if you don’t have something stuck in your eye by the end of these mini-dramas, then you are a more resilient person than I am. Or you are a robot.

Apparently, this is how you sell life insurance in southeast Asia: by taking the old “widows and orphans” angle and taking it to its most heart-wrenching extreme. Most Americans are not used to this degree of hard sell. Heck, there was practically a nationwide run on Kleenex when people saw the first few minutes of Pixar’s Up. And when Canada’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board tried getting hardcore with a series of gruesome workplace safety ads a few years ago, all it did was frighten people off message. So it would be easy to imagine why ads like these might not do well on the small screen, when folks don’t have the attention span for a 2- or 3-minute commercial or can simply change the channel as soon as they sense where the ad is taking them.

Regardless, these Thai ads are masterpieces of emotional engineering. Maybe there is something about Thai storytelling traditions especially effective on a Western audience. Or maybe they are more open about what they consider fair game for making a point, so while some of their ads are downright weird (if funny), others, when selling against heartache, make you feel like you were born under a black cloud.

I wonder, though, could they work here? Movie theatres seem like a good venue for them. I find advertisements in front of the trailers as annoying as you do, but I am not about to walk out on one. Moreover, movie ads are perfectly suited for a three-minute long treatment, which is the length of an average trailer. Just imagine what kind of numbers you might pull down if you run a Thai-style ad before a romantic comedy or whatever passes for a “date night” flick these days. I’ll tell you what: if I saw one of these ads at the movies, back before my wife and I had kids, we would be at our insurance agent before ever reached the closing credits.