Tuesday, November 11, 2014

AXA’s fascinatingly bad TV commercials: ruminations on gender, fate, and love

Come with me as I way overanalyze a pair of insurance and retirement commercials!

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Here’s a TV commercial for AXA, an insurance and financial services firm, that’s pretty lame, but benignly so.


A man at an airport so absorbed with the Financial Services Fearmongering app on his tablet that he doesn’t even notice a fellow businessman who sat down next to him, leaning over with a big, expectant grin. They have the same tie, and the businessman wants to make small talk!

But alas, he’s so consumed with the “LIFE INSURANCE: Do you have enough?” question that he ignores the businessman. The businessman is so disappointed and so frustrated at this failed attempt at human connection that, a mere ten seconds after sitting down, he dashes off to find another seat—because, you know, screw you for not noticing me even though I didn’t even say “excuse me” and can clearly see you’re engrossed in something. An on-screen graphic delivers the devastating news: “That was a $40 million dollar deal.”




To emphasize how big of a missed opportunity this was, they redundantly include the word “dollar” in the graphic—that was a forty million dollar dollar deal, damn it.

The voiceover brings it all together: “We all think about life insurance. But when we start worrying about tomorrow, we miss out on the things that matter today. At AXA, we offer advice and help you break down your insurance goals into small, manageable steps, because when you plan for tomorrow, it helps you live for today.”

And indeed, we’re shown that in the alternate universe where the man saw an AXA advisor, he would’ve (1) been so worry-free that he doesn’t even wear ties, yo; and (2) noticed that he and the businessman have matching socks, with all the smiling and chuckling and surprised finger-pointing that that entails.



And boom—40 million double dollars, here we come!

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Here’s the other AXA TV commercial in this campaign, which is lamer still.


A woman sitting in a coffee shop is reading the legacy media version of the Financial Services Fearmongering app (“RETIREMENT: Will your savings last?”) while a sketchy-looking dude is drawing a picture of her1. Sadly, she leaves the coffee shop without even noticing him, which is a tragedy, because—“That was her soulmate.”



Look at his face there: “I tried everything—creepily staring at her from afar, surreptitiously drawing a picture of her—and nothing worked! Ugh, women today can’t appreciate a nice guy.”

A voiceover once again offers an explanation for what we just witnessed: “We all have to plan for retirement. But when we start worrying about tomorrow, we miss out on what matters today.” And had the woman seen an AXA advisor who would have helped her live for today, we see that she and the dude would’ve spent so much time at the coffee shop that the lights are off and everybody—including the staff—is gone. And then off-camera they presumably rob the coffee shop to finance his career as a sub-mediocre sketch artist.

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The obvious critique is a feminist one: when AXA wants to talk to men about missed opportunities, it’s about financial deals; when AXA wants to talk to women, it’s about soulmates and true love. And it’s a fair enough critique; women are actively engaged in business and have concerns that extend beyond finding Prince Charming, and these two commercials juxtaposed against each other suggest that AXA doesn’t look at its potential female clients as serious-minded about finances. (Although, to be fair, the man in the life insurance spot does meet with a female AXA advisor, so there’s that.)

What’s kind of neat about these ads is that, somehow, AXA (or, more specifically, its ad agency) found a way to construct a pair of possibly mildly sexist ads that somehow become worse if they’re gender-swapped.

Let’s say it were two businesswomen at the airport with matching scarves. One woman tries and fails to get the other’s attention and, afterward, huffily finds another seat as the “That was a $40 million dollar deal” graphic appears. I can see myself offering two critiques: Is AXA trying to say that women are so shallow that they’d base a $40 million deal on clothes? Is AXA trying to say that women are so sensitive that they’d get upset because they couldn’t get someone’s attention after only a few seconds?

And if it were a man who narrowly missed his supposed female sketch-artist soulmate, complete with a “That was his soulmate” graphic, it’d look objectifying—as though a woman is comparable to a business deal, just another thing to win or acquire.

A better fix would be to simply switch the graphics—the woman at the coffee shop missed a $40 million deal, and the man at the airport missed his tie-and-sock sharing soulmate. Because, seriously, look at their eyes.



The only business deal that went down that night is a horizontal merger, if you know what I mean2.

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On the other hand, is it even really sexist? Everybody talks about how we need to find a proper work-life balance and how your job shouldn’t be the totality of who you are. And most people will likely agree that love and family is more important than work and business. So isn’t AXA showing that the woman (who’s concerned with finding someone to love) has better priorities than the man (who’s concerned with a business deal)? Isn’t the ad really sexist against men who don’t understand what really matters in life?

Maybe! But probably not.

Obviously, women have historically had a much tougher time being taken seriously in business and money matters, so, even if we’re being extremely charitable with AXA’s intent, it still isn’t helpful in knocking down some stereotypes. And in matters of love and family, it’s generally been women who scale back on—or entirely give up—their careers and business lives, and these AXA commercials subtly reinforce that cultural norm.

A less comfortable possibility: Maybe we really don’t think love and family is more important than work and business. Think about how much time we spend at work, or thinking about work, or trying to find better, more lucrative work. It’s probably more time than we spend on “love,” right? And hey, I’m not judging—who are any of us to say that anybody’s priorities are better than the other?


* * *

But really, what’s most fascinating about these otherwise unremarkable ads is how they play with the notion of fate: If you’re not in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, and in exactly the right mood, you might miss out on a business deal! Or a soulmate!

And I know it’s just a silly pair of ads, but that’s kind of a pernicious mind-virus with which to infect your audience, because that way madness lies. Literally everything is the product of such a precise set of circumstances that it can be brain-bending to think about it too hard—if I left work a few moments earlier, I wouldn’t have gotten into that car accident; if I hadn’t stopped to get a cup of water from the water cooler before leaving, I wouldn’t have left work those few moments later; if I hadn’t eaten pretzels as a snack, I wouldn’t have been thirsty for water; if I had enough change for Oreos, I wouldn’t have gotten pretzels from the vending machine; if I hadn’t given some of my change to that homeless guy on the corner, I would’ve had enough change for Oreos. ERGO, I AM NEVER GIVING MONEY TO HOMELESS PEOPLE EVER AGAIN.

Of course, that’s ridiculous to conclude. And imagine if, say, you were planning on stopping by a convenience store on your way home, which, obviously, you don’t because of the car accident. And let’s say that that convenience store was robbed by a violent gunman3 who shot and killed everybody in the store—what then? Did your car accident save your life? Do you eat more pretzels now? Do you give more money to homeless people?

So it’s strange for AXA to make a pitch of, “Use our services to make sure that a precise set of mostly uncontrollable circumstances align properly so you don’t miss out on something!” I doubt anybody would take these ads quite that seriously, but still, it’s kind of a mean-spirited albeit metaphysical fear-based appeal. (Plus, using the ad’s own logic: who’s to say that, by talking to $40 million deal guy, you missed a chance to talk to some other dude who had, like, a matching suitcase who would’ve given you an $80 million deal? What then, AXA?)

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And finally—“soulmate”? Really?

This is neither here nor there, but I think the idea of a soulmate—or The One, or your lobster, or whatever—is depressing. There are a lot of people on the planet, after all, and if there’s only one soulmate out there for each of us, then guys—we’re probabilistically screwed. Our soulmates might not be on the same continent. They might not be born yet, or they might have just died.

Or what if, by some odds-defying stroke of luck, your soulmate happens to be in the same city as you are and you just happen to be on the same bus, but they’re busy on their phone. Or they’re in a bad mood. Or they just got into a relationship, or just got out of one so they’re not ready to date. Or maybe they’re just too preoccupied planning for retirement. What then?

A belief in soulmates is either a belief in abject despair, or it’s a belief that the universe loves us so much that it’ll bend the laws of statistics and probability to accommodate our hearts’ desires. And honestly, I don’t think the universe even really likes us as just friends.

Plus, believing in soulmates can be kind of dangerous, especially if you genuinely believe you’ve met yours. After all, it’s harder to get out of a relationship—even a toxic one—if you believe that your partner is your one and only. And “soulmates” talk often ignores the effort that goes into successful relationships in favor of an assumption that everything will just fall into place.

So basically, BOO AXA FOR PROMOTING UNREALISTIC NOTIONS OF LOVE. And also, for making me put in way more thought into your commercials than I’m guessing anybody involved with making them did.


1See what I did there? It’s funny because he’s sketching a picture of her, and it looks like he’s been sketchily digging through her garbage to find her old pantyhose. I’m kind of an expert at puns, you see.

2Sex.

3Or gunwoman! I just talked a big game about possible sexism, and here I am, assuming ladyfolk can’t be robbers. Shame on me.

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