SAVAN: "Get Real" Ads
A quiver of Get Real ads is whistling through the airwaves. Hinting at mortality, these ads pose life's big questions through the small, presumably poignant moments, demanding that you wake up and smell your death -- or at least locate your coordinates on the spectrum of life, no matter how painful that task may be.By their granite aesthetic shall you know them -- usually black-and-white footage, mournful music, wise female voice-overs, and many...meaningful...pauses -- but by their subtle politics might you on occasion be stung.Get Real ads aren't necessarily political, and they aren't necessarily left or right; they're just a bucketful of ice water to the face. But the new ads by Prudential do seem Republican, if not Freemen, in their message -- while they look and feel positively Dukakisian.A man of about 60 snowshoes through a mountain meadow as his voice-over explains the approved new attitude: "Somehow, at some deep level, we're responsible for what happens to us....I mean, you're the best investment you got. You're the best investment you'll ever have." Then, rather disconcertingly, the screen instructs: "Be Your Own Rock."The insurance and financial services company that for years seduced us with the security of getting "a piece of the rock" has pulverized Gibraltar into gravel. The message may be the GOP's self-reliance, antivictim platitude, but it comes in New Age-sweetened language. "Be Your Own Rock," of course, resounds with the such phony rebel tag lines as Red Dog's "You Are Your Own Dog" and Saab's "Find Your Own Road." (Hey, independent-minded ad dudes: "Write Your Own Slogan.") The important difference is that, in the context of health insurance, phrases like Be Your Own actually, unfortunately, mean something.It's certainly true that sometimes "we're responsible for what happens to us," but the last entities you want telling you when that is are an insurance company or an HMO -- and Prudential is both. It's a growing trend: Most HMOs long ago shortened Be Your Own Rock to Be a Rock (and never ever get sick), leaving survivors in the dust to play Tell Your Own HMO Horror Story. (I like the one in which the HMOs refuse to cover subscribers for emergency-room care because their impairment wasn't sufficiently life threatening.) According to an extensive study on HMOs by NYC Public Advocate Mark Green's office, Prudential's HMO, Prudential HealthCare, is no exception to the HMO frequent-frightener rule. "Between 1992 and 1994, almost half of the complaints filed against Prudential were upheld by the state investigators as opposed to about one-third or one-fifth for most of the other HMOs in New York City," says the study's research director, Glenn Von Nostitz. Prudential HealthCare spokesman Kevin Heine says, "While we may not agree with everything in the study, it does force health plans to go back and look at themselves to see if they're doing what they say they're doing."And yet the spots don't come off like a Dick Armey assault at all -- they feature strong, independent old people who are not the butt of a mediocre joke (a rare species on television) and who may even have some flower-child leanings. In fact, the spots have real people telling their own stories with their own voice-overs. One woman dances hippie-like across a field in silhouette. "At 50 I found myself alone, divorced, and I said I was going to open a ballet school....You know, it's a skill to manage life. It scared the bejabbers out of me."The whole Be Your Own Rock idea wobbles somewhere between militias and Mother Jones. "When we looked at the entire wide range of consumer research, it invariably led to growing distrust of institutions and the institution of government," says Bill Westbrook, president of Prudential's ad agency, Fallon McElligott. "A distrust that institutions like Medicaid or Social Security will be there to take care of people. And this distrust rubbed off onto banks and insurance companies." (Banks and insurance companies are, of course, innocent bystanders.)Research also unearthed, says Westbrook, "a growing sense of empowerment, the idea that 'I'm a smart, capable person, and I can make my own decisions.' This whole notion of Be Your Own Rock -- we're saying, 'We understand that it's your call."'It may pack less political whomp, but John Hancock's new campaign is even harder core Get Real. "Your parents, your children, yourself," a title card reads. "Who do you love the least?" As we look into the big, soulful eyes of little girls and elderly parents, voice-over Sigourney Weaver (accompanied by mournful music from Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler), recites near-poetry in portentous tones: "You owe it to your parents (pause) for they brought you into this world. You owe it to your children (pause) for you did the same for them. But the day may arrive when both debts come to you. When you may have no choice but to borrow from your own retirement (pause) to educate a child or care for a parent. And into whose eyes can you look and say you just can't help, for in both you will surely see your own?"On the other hand, many people will see the eyes of insurance company executives who say they just can't help. While Hancock owns no HMOs, it is a member of HIAA, the insurance company coalition that, among other health-care reform-killing acts, ran the "Harry and Louise" ads.And yet, again, Getting Real attempts to redeem itself by showing it like it is -- at least on certain TV movie-approved themes. "How much does the world weigh?" a spot opens as we see a distressed, overworked young mom. "Ask a single mother."But overall, self-reliant is the watchword: Even though it is advisable to distrust institutions, the thinking of these institutions goes, it is very bad to blame them for our problems. These ads Get Real like Clinton does: He nicely asks companies to be responsible corporate citizens, but he won't blame them for laying off or underpaying millions, and he won't even offer them tax incentives to do better, as Labor Secretary Reich proposed. If we find ourselves in financial trouble, it's probably due to our wicked ways -- another Hancock spot likens a life of consuming instead of investing to "a prison where there are no walls, no barbed wire, no guard towers." Consuming instead of investing is exactly what all the other ads on TV have urged us to do for generations -- but to point that out these days is to risk being accused of crying "victim," i.e., of not being a good little rock.Though the Rock and 'cock campaigns are strikingly similar -- the big life questions, the Aerit-looking humanoids, the black-and-whiteness (though Prudential is technically blue-and-brown-and-white) -- the competitors claim not to worry that they might be confused. "Both campaigns deal with big issues," Prudential adman Westbrook says. "They're a natural place for all insurance companies."But Getting Real's getting crowded: Within the same four-month period, nearly identical-looking ads have also appeared for CVS pharmacies. The spots have all the Getting Real trademarks -- V.O.'s conducting life's Q&As in B&W -- but the idea here is that we should rely on them."What if worry ruled your life?" another female asks as we see worried kids, couples, and old people. "You'd never feel the warmth of the sun. (Pause) Or the wind in your hair. You'd never get a mortgage, and you'd never have kids. Worry wouldn't just rule your life. (Pause) It would steal it. Relax." Finally, a shot of a smiling child appears, then of a medicine bottle, and then the voice-over pops up in a smiley upswing: "If you'll ever need us, we'll be here." The title reads: CVS/Pharmacy. Open 24 hours a day." In this fractured, disposable world, 24-hour anything is not just a rock, it's a church.So many ads for so many companies are using elements of this style that they seem to have merged into a video series about aging in the winter of our millennium as directed by Ingmar Bergman. Though it's in color, even an ad for Kohler plumbing fixtures is scraping reality's bone: "Every day the face goes on, each night it comes off," says yet another lady VO, as a bathroom mirror brutally magnifies the wrinkles around a woman's exhausted middle-aged eyes. The camera so anxiously jumps back and forth between close-ups of a ticking watch and an elegant sink that you almost miss one helluva haiku: "This night (pause) the naked eyes freeze in the faucet, evidence of 45 years....Are the jars of miracles telling fibs? Where's the newer, younger you?"Why this sudden confluence of hyperrealism? Why, for starters, is everyone so eager to mute the onscreen characters and have the voice-over explain it all to you?It's a division of labor that makes ads seem less like ads, ad people believe. "You can get more out of a commercial if the visuals tell one story and the audio another," says CVS copywriter Steve Connelly. "It's almost left brain, right brain. If the words come from the faces in the TV, it might seem more like a commercial than like just capturing a moment." Donny Deutsch, whose agency made the Kohler spots, agrees: "If you can almost hear the words in your own head, you create empathy. You want to stop talking from the advertiser's point of view and transfer the voice to the consumer. Hopefully, if they're simpatico, you fall in love with the brand. If you're an insurance company or a plumbing-fixture company, you need that emotional quotient, you need that third party to talk because...because you're selling insurance!"As for the black-and-white, this is hardly its first revival. Over the last decade, B&W has been used in ads to create nostalgia, to integrate ad characters into old movie footage, and to signify a dreariness brightened only by the product magically appearing in color.This time around, B&W is there to pull heartstrings; something stern and absolute seems to seep out between the shadows and the light. "It allows distractions to drain away, and you're able to focus more on the emotional," says Connelly. And for the boomers that John Hancock is targeting, it's "associated with good values," says Steve Conroy, spokesman for Hancock's agency. "It harkens back to World War II, which was a black-and-white war -- literally, there was good and evil, and it was shot in black-and-white. I think financial-services companies are now trying to translate that quality to themselves."At first glance it may appear that Get Real ads are bravely bursting TV's helium balloons of fantasy, fun, and friendly lies. But no matter how gripping the ads may be, they still reflect only the reality that's in the storyteller's interest. After all, it's not as if advertising and reality were more than vaguely related, as even ad people on occasion acknowledge.In interviewing dozens of real people for the Prudential spots, Bill Westbrook met an 89-year-old woman (who is expected to appear in a later ad). "As she told me about her life, it just reduced me," he says. "At age 60, she wrote a grant to open a home for the aged, which she still helps manage at 89. I felt I had to kill myself because I had to go back and do advertising."