Life and health insurers have long used traditional ad media to sell their message to the public, but rarely has it been lauded by the ad industry itself as being particularly innovative or imagination-capturing. Insurance ads usually are not the subject of post-Superbowl talk, or stirring any kind of national shared experience (unlike the Thai mini-dramas I am so fond of referring you back to). But all that may finally be starting to chage as some recent campaigns have earned plaudits for making a statement that sticks.

The first is the “Responsibility: Doing the Right Thing” campaign by Liberty Mutual. The campaign was designed by Hill Holliday and drives home the message that just as everyday people ought to do the right thing when faced with an ethical decision to make, so too must insurers. The effort is co-branded with its Responsibility Project, and it offers some pretty good food for thought to general viewers. But more importantly, it provides folks with a reason to engage content that on one level has nothing to do with insurance, and on another level has everything to do with insurance, and all the while, somewhere, somehow, Liberty Mutual is the name that sticks in peoples’ heads. 

Anecdotally, these ads work; when I see one come on TV, I often ask any guests in the house what they think, and perhaps the most important reaction is that they talk about the content of the ad. They typically don’t remark about what they thought the insurer was trying to get out of it by putting forth a positive message. To break through default cynicism is a rare feat for anybody in today’s culture, but doubly so for an insurance company, which is probably why the Responsibility campaign won the EthicMark award last night at the 22nd Annual SRI in the Rockies Conference. The award is sponsored by Ethical Markets, LLC, the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business and the World Business Academy. It highlights investors and investment professionals who work with money in more positive, healthy, transformative ways. It’s well deserved, and I hope to see more of this campaign well into the future. It’s a nice tonic for annoying lizards with indeterminate accents, at any rate.

Meanwhile, Ace Metrix, which measures television advertising effectiveness, announced today its quarterly top 10 national TV ads for 3Q 2011. Not surprisingly, the top ads this quarter were 9/11 tribute ads. I saw both of the top performers during the same football game on September 11, which, for those of you reading this from another planet, was the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon. 

The second ad I saw was from Anheuser-Busch, in which their iconic Clydesdales slowly walked out to a meadow where the New York skyline, minus the Towers, came into view. Slowly, the horses take a knee. It’s a great ad, but as Hill Holliday CEO Mike Sheehan points out, it’s not a new ad, but a touched-up reissue of the original 9/11 tribute ad AB ran after 9/11 itself. A minor quibble, I think, but it’s a decent point. If you’re looking to communicate to your audience, retreading an old message, especially one about 9/11 is probably not the way to go.

But the first ad I saw, and still the most effective in my mind, came from State Farm. It is simply a group of children serenading NYFD members, singing “Empire State of Mind.” This was a risky ad (directed by none other than Spike Lee, BTW), really. When I think of State Farm, I don’t necessarily think of State Farm right off the bat (mainly because I think of Swiss Re and the fight it had to go through over the property claim on the Towers themselves). But State Farm didn’t have to do anything to mark 9/11. It is not seen as State Farm’s tragedy, really. Certainly not by anybody outside of the industry. And yet, State Farm went there. And they did it with uncommon taste and humanity, doing the kind of thing that only powerhouse brands like Coca-Cola do when they run out ads that really don’t say anything about their product. They are just a moment to connect with the culture in a way that really engages them and in so doing, reminds them in their collective subconscious that Coca-Cola is something that brings them good feelings. State Farm gave us a choke-up moment with its ad, and it reminded us in the most restained terms where it came from, and it left it at that.

Damn. 

You just don’t see advertising quite like this in life insurance. But we ought to. This is an industry perfectly primed for it. And I really hope not just that State Farm follows this up with a similar culture moment at some point, but I hope other companies in tis space take the hint and do likewise. If the life insurance world becomes an engine for collective media moments, that would be a good thing indeed for raising the industry’s collective reputation, defusing customer cynicism, and just helping to sell more of a product people need anyway.