Can Advertising Avoid Being Cynical?

I saw a TV ad the other night that intrigued me. 

It showed a mother who had clearly been called to the police station about her son, who apparently had been hauled in for street racing in the family car.  The kid was clearly remorseful and ashamed, not wanting to talk about what had happened.  She was emotionally there for him, but also firmly asking him to tell her exactly what had happened.

The tag line was something like, “Responsibility.  Liberty Mutual.”

Not your everyday ad. 

Now, I like to think I’m as cynical as the next guy, but I have to say, my first reaction was not cynicism.  Instead, I thought, ‘Well that was gutsy.  I wonder if they can back it up?’

Turns out the ad is part of a broader campaign highlighting the notion of individual responsibility  , which in turn is the 2009 version of the company’s broader campaign several-year campaign about responsibility, begun back in 2006 and run by Hill Holiday.    It comes complete with website,, which has had several million visitors since opening in 2008.

Without having looked deeply into it, I have to say I like this.  It’s a relevant issue.  It’s an issue they’ve done a nice job of framing, without overtly anchoring it to a particular political point of view.  And while they do say they’re about responsibility, it still has the flavor of sponsoring a dialogue, rather than of wrapping themselves in the flag. 

Business being business, some idiot had to muck it up a few years ago by buying google adwords related to an advertising exec’s suicide.  

And, my viewpoint is not shared by at least one critic, Jack Shafer at Slate, who calls it pandering on the scale of Chevron’s quasi-environmentalist ads.  

I’m glad Shafer is upholding the virtues of suspicion while I take a day off from it.  Still, at least Liberty Mutual doesn’t address me as “America” and  claim “that’s why we at [PickYourBigCo] is doing something about [PickYourBigIssue]. 

I give them credit.  A dialogue about the concept of responsibility at the individual and social level?  As long as they stand back and let the dialogue roll, I think they deserve the credit they get by associating their name  with it.  

2 replies
  1. Michael Benidt
    Michael Benidt says:

    I had to laugh – because I could hardly find the Slate post when I clicked on your link above. The Chevron and Toyota and Adsense and pop-up advertisements kept blinding me. I love reading moral indignation about corporate irresponsibility when it’s surrounded by corporate ads from those same immoral buggers. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

    What I like about you, Mr. Green, is that you’re not predictable. Search the blogs on this topic and you’ll find about 40 knee-jerk’s writing stuff just like Shafer’s Slate blah-blah.

    It’s why the Internet is so boring – and why you aren’t. (And, you don’t put ads all over your site – thanks!)

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi Charlie…

    There’s a satisfaction survey here for Libety Mutual (59% very dissatisfied)
    a PR campaign that related to this…maybe not…

    An interesting (for me) Business Week piece on this PR effort here:

    On the face of it, I give them a lot of credit for taking this risk…

    We live in a culture of knee-jerk, negative reactivity and skepticism (conscious and unconscious)…however, if one chooses to look at this with a "beginner’s mind" it is, IMHO, a noble venture that takes some guts. Fresh air.


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