Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Here’s one way of avoiding the return to normal-ity or -cy: Start your day by reading The New York Times’ page of mini-obituaries for the people who disappeared in the attacks on the World Trade Center. It offers a window into their lives. And it gives one’s inner organs a major wrench. I keep hoping that in some way, reading about the dead honors them.

The most heart-pummeling are the stories of how much the kids miss their fathers or mothers. One 5-year-old placed Halloween stickers on his window so “Daddy will be able to find me.” Gulp. Now along comes this commercial for John Hancock, part of a campaign launched during the World Series, showing a still-shellshocked widow recounting her small children’s struggle. As she talks, we see the ultimate movie-of-the-week image—the empty poignance of the unused swing set in the back yard.

Hancock has been doing “reality- based” advertising since 1986. Over the years, the campaigns, sharply written and directed, have covered all the major life moments for the over-35 set and have never shied away from the not-so-pretty particulars, like divorce, single parenthood, illness, elder care. But now, after 9/11, the idea of “real life” as represented in the controlled and, let’s face it, fake environment of advertising feels different, even if the brand has owned the territory and done it well for years.

Open on an upper-middle-class kitchen with Martha Stewart-ish appointments. A couple sits with their friend, a woman who looks to be in her mid-30s. In a quavering voice she says, “Amy’s still adjusting, she still misses her father. And the baby doesn’t really remember him.”

Then she adds: “Every time I look at my kids, I see Paul. I guess I never expected to be raising them alone.”

This is indeed chilling. It’s exactly what all the surviving spouses are now quoted as saying. According to Hill, Holliday, the spot was written and produced before Sept. 11. It’s so eerily prescient.

What makes me uncomfortable is that while conversations like these are taking place for real all over America, these actors are speaking lines. The “re-enactment” at this point feels trivializing.

Mike Sheehan, the chief creative director, says that every day about 315 men aged 30-49 die in America, and most of them are underinsured. (The caption in the spot tells us that “most women exhaust their husband’s life insurance within 9 months.”) This approach seemed more honest and respectful, Sheehan says, than “dealing with it metaphorically or in a round about way.”

In this case, however, the scenario might just cut so close to the bone that it calls for metaphor. Ultimately, it’s hard to watch. The bottom line is that the campaign, however artful, is exploiting a comfort level that’s not there anymore—the “What if?” scenario is no longer abstract.

Some of the other spots are exuberant, and some are also major downers. In “Re union,” an actress with a breakthrough voice that pops right out of the screen gives a welcoming speech with the class demographics: the number of marriages, deaths and those who “came out.” (A nod to the 40,000 supportive e-mails sent to Hancock last year from the gay community, as a result of the controversial spot showing female domestic partners adopting a Chinese baby.)

One really discomfiting spot depicts a middle-aged woman visiting her mother, who not only fails to recognize her but tells her she has a beautiful name. My fa vorite, for its offbeat casting of the wife with bugged-out eyes, shows a couple, in Cherie and Tony Blair-like middle age, with two teen agers, privately chewing over the slightly embarrassing fact that they are pregnant. The husband, trying to do the math, says, “So when he starts college …” and the wife interrupts, “We’ll be 60.” And the husband has to laugh, because the idea is at once so exciting and scary.

The package is beautifully cast and directed, and it’s a good mix of hope and despair. But the problem is that it is a package. John Hancock has had a great run with “reality.” It used to be a gripping way to promote the brand. Now it seems a bit dated—and naive. We’ve all been shown, graphically, how fragile life is. Reality has up staged any version of “reality” that John Hancock could possibly create.