Barbara Lippert’s Critique: For John Hancock, Less Is Much More

John Hancock has been advertising its own version of “reality” since 1985 (take that, Survivor!), and through all its incarnations, the work has been consistently strong and industry leading. Gritty, filled with layered stories and dialogue, the campaign has touched unflinchingly on major life moments for the over-35 set. Some of the milestones were previously verboten topics—one spot showed a gay couple adopting a Chinese baby. Others sensitively covered subjects that were standard but not so joyous, like divorce, elder care and job loss.

By comparison, this latest iteration is shocking in its simplicity. It shows girls speaking in their own voices straight to the camera. There’s no music, no drama, just natural sound, a single title card, awkward pauses and white space.

Is this a revolution, or just a revival of Calvin Klein-style stuff from the mid-’80s? There is something familiar about it, but because the subject is death, not sex, insurance, not jeans, and these are natural-seeming kids, not models, it’s new for the category. While some of the spots are better than others, the campaign is so stripped and simple that the ads do stand out.

The directors, Carter and Blitz (they sound like a vaudeville team), managed to get some convincing, heartfelt statements out of the kids. Jeff Blitz directed the Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, about the middle-schoolers who compete in the National Spelling Bee. And while there is no such dramatic, nail-biting, weirdly competitive intellectual backdrop here from which to observe these kids, the spots are pretty charming.

A commercial featuring a young red-haired girl, who looks like she’s straight out of a Botticelli painting, is not only poignant but kind of heartbreaking. “I think my mom and dad are gonna live till they’re 200,” she says very seriously. She pauses and swallows, adding, ” ‘Cause they’re very special people in my world. Not having parents would be hard. You would be stinky, because you wouldn’t have a bath.”

That resonates, because it’s exactly the sort of literal worries that little kids have—their routines are all they know, and they’re so comforting. When she finishes, the words on the single title card seem equally dramatic: “It’s not your life you insure.”

There are two lighter-hearted spots, one with sisters and one with the older girl alone. Each sister describes what she thinks the other wants to be when she grows up: “a dancer, actress, ASPCA agent, veterinarian.” The younger one says her sister should be a lawyer, “because she talks a lot.” The would-be attorney’s answer is not overly verbal—she takes a sisterly swipe. In the other spot, the older girl is lying on her stomach, talking about not wanting to marry a boy. The wedding, she thinks, would be “all weird,” with her parents in tears and “a river of cries in the middle of the aisle,” like some haiku. She ends by saying she’d prefer to have just the dress, which seems sensible enough.

Throughout the spots, there are slight cutaways, to the hands or the feet and then back to the speaker. Here, the camera goes to her ankles and pans up her jeans leg slightly. It’s obviously innocent, needed for pacing and to bring the viewer back in, but it suggests those Calvin spots when models spoke directly to the camera. (“Someday, someday, I’m going to Atlanta,” a young Andie MacDowell said.) But just that light, Calvin-esque pan implies a touch of sex, which is unsettling.

I thought of the nervous, unnaturally driven girl from Spellbound who studied spelling nine hours a day during her summer breaks while I watched the college spot. It’s the only one that seems strained to the point of annoying. In it, a “tween” sits on the stairs of her house (nice wood floors and white-painted baseboards), talking about how she’d like to go to Harvard or Yale, and how she might afford it.

“I think, like, my mom and dad might put some things in, and I also have, like, an account that I’m saving for college,” she says, twisting her hands. She lightens it up a bit at the end with, “I’m saving my money in my piggybank. OK, I want this college, so I’m gonna have to save … $1, $2 …” The message will get through to parents and kids alike, but meanwhile, this girl could be the poster child for those anxious 10-year-olds who are already worrying at post-graduate levels.

The last Hancock series I reviewed was released shortly after 9/11, and although the fictional stories were smart and beautifully produced, they were staged. At the time, I felt that real life, sadly, had trumped any version of “reality” that could come packaged from an insurance company.

Simple to the point of being underdone, this work does feel real. And the most gripping part is that these kids are not whining for expensive stuff or the latest anything. They simply want to grow up with their parents. For grown-ups, that’s a way to sell insurance with no degrees of separation.