Will Ferrell’s Joke About Life (Insurance)

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By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

Summer is the time of fun and laughter, and in that vein I found myself this week watching a 2011 YouTube video of Will Ferrell’s acceptance speech for the most esteemed honour in American humour, the Mark Twain Prize.

Insofar as an award for comedy can be a serious matter, to be bestowed the Twain Prize is as heavyweight as it gets: past winners include Carol Burnett, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, George Carlin and Tina Fey.

Ferrell’s speech was of course a comedy routine, delivered to the most discriminating audience conceivable: 2,000 of his comedic peers at the Kennedy Center in New York.

To gales of shocked laughter, Ferrell began by fumbling the physical manifestation of the award, a Twain bust, smashing it to smithereens on the stage.

But what really caught my attention was what happened at 4:50.

That was the moment at which Ferrell confided what he had truly wanted to do with his life.

“You have to understand that as a kid growing up in Irvine, California, where I would sit in my room and listen to records of Steve Martin, and the original Saturday Night Live cast, or stay up late and watch Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show to see what comedians he would have on, I had one dream. One singular focus, even at the earliest age. I can remember wanting to do one thing, and one thing only. Sell insurance.”

Will Ferrell acceptance speech Mark Twain Prize

Imagine: one of the most brilliant comedic minds of his generation, when preparing his speech for the highest honour he may ever receive, pondered which career was diametrically opposed to fun, to happiness, to fulfillment and to a meaningful contribution to society. And he came up with insurance sales.

The audience in attendance found it very funny, but to me it is ultimately sad. Because I have helped many elite advisors in the life insurance business uncover why they do what they do. And what unique value they want to, and do, offer the world.

And without exception, their motivations are pure and their positive impact is real. In essence, they want to live a good life, one that is dependent upon helping others and their loved ones do the same.

Why, then, did Ferrell’s joke elicit such a belly laugh? Because, as with all great humour, there was an element of truth to it. Because a brand is what people think of you, and the life insurance industry has a very serious brand problem: there is a pervasive belief that someone selling life insurance is unprofessional, self-serving and pushy, that the insurance companies don’t pay out, and that the product itself is unnecessary.

Oh yeah, and it forces people to think about their own death.

Because of these perceptions – which again have kernels of truth but are not the main story – the public’s rate of life insurance literacy is low. As is adoption: only 70% of Canadians and 62% of Americans have life insurance.

Care to guess what percentage of these people is going to die?

The life insurance industry is in profound need of a rebrand. This categorically does not mean running some persuasive TV ads and leaving it at that. A brand, along with being defined as what people think of you, is culture. Thus the only way to change the outward perception of the industry is to first change that culture.

That can only begin with a brutally honest assessment and acknowledgement of the aforementioned kernels of truth, followed by programs and expectations that bring all advisors, not just the elite, up to the highest standards of professionalism. Then these advisors, led by the firms they work for, must do the painstaking work of changing clients’ perceptions, one at a time.

It’s going to be a long haul.  But it’s the only way the industry can get past being a punch line.

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