Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

A Great Motivator

This past weekend, I took a moment to enjoy some sporting event or other that was being shown on the local teevee. As usual, much as I tried to avoid being besieged by commercial messages, there I was, appropriately besieged. Some of the ads, I will admit, caused me to laugh out loud at either their sheer audacity or their unexpected but welcome flashes of genuine fun or humor.

One of the TV ads struck me, not for the first time, as more than a bit creepy.

Yes. I have used the word creepy before, in this space, and I shall resist the urge to link you to the post in which I did so. I will not give in to the siren call of “must… have… as many… blog hits… as possible…!” Every time I see that someone has viewed that particular post, I cringe a little. Don’t, uhhhh… just don’t read that one. I’d just as soon avoid allowing a wayward click, or child-singing-star search-engine query, to release the true-believer hornet’s-nest demons again.

Obviously my previous use of the word creepy has had absolutely no effect on me whatever.

In this case, though … in the case of this TV ad … “creepy” was precisely the point.


The series of 30-second spots that make up the latest Allstate insurance company TV ad campaign features a moderately young man in a suit and tie who introduces himself as “Mayhem”, and goes on to demonstrate the sorts of awful things that could happen to you at any time, in the service of suggesting that perhaps buying an insurance policy from this company is preferable to not buying one. It’s an old advertising strategy: create a character who causes problems that only the advertised product can solve. (Anyone remember the ads that insisted that Domino’s Pizza could somehow help us “Avoid the Noid”?)

If the purpose of the ads is to help a viewer to imagine the dangers of life … they work. And the gentleman who portrays “Mayhem” … whether he’s embodying a tree branch that falls off a roof and onto a parked car (“shaky shaky!”), or a flying object that lands on a windshield and causes a car wreck, or a lazy dog who allows robbers to ransack the house he’s allegedly guarding (“HEY [i.e. BARK]! … … you guys are doin’ a great job.”) … that gentleman does his job very, very well. He’s a little bit amusing, and a whole lot disturbing. Score one for the ad agency (in addition to the 80 or so advertising industry awards the agency has won for the campaign).

I’m the key against your side door,” he oozes. “I’m a wild deer” that could suddenly dart out in front of your oncoming car on a dark night. “I’m the puppy that ate your back seat,” he says, and spits out a piece of foam. Said the executive VP of the ad agency that created the ads: “This guy’s trouble with a charming smile, and represents everything Allstate protects you from.”

The actor’s name is Dean Winters, and he’s had experience playing some fairly dark characters (in the cauldrons of dark that are “Oz” and “Rescue Me”). He’s good enough at this character – full of know-it-all grins and mischievous vandalism – to flash me back to junior high school, and to the particular classmates of mine whose sole purpose seemed to be not merely making mischief and making other people’s lives miserable, but doing so strictly for their own enjoyment.  I react rather poorly to those memories, and to anyone who currently seems to fulfill the same role.

I got curious. Who was this guy, really? –Interwebs to the rescue!! It turns out that, according to a number of online sources, he’s seemingly a decent guy, with a non-standard acting career, a near-death experience, and a particularly kind thing to say about comedian Tina Fey in the wake of that experience. So, Mr. Winters is an example of a really good actor. Through the Allstate ads, he had made me wonder what kind of a creep he was – he almost made me believe he could be a horrible person. Or, more accurately, he portrayed horrible-ness so well that I was actually relieved to read that he was not a stealer of babies’ candy, or a strangler of puppies, or worse.

But then I read an article or two which revealed the reasoning behind the ad campaign. Allstate’s ad agency is just the most recent example of a group or individual (a politician, por ejemplo) that uses fear as a way to convince people to think or do something, something which might or might not be in their best interests. To spend money on something; or to vote a certain way. At the time the ad campaign was created, Allstate’s revenues were down noticeably, so the company went away from its signature, Norman Rockwell-esque ads featuring the comforting sight and sound of actor Dennis Haysbert reminding you that you were in good hands.

Well, in advertising, you do whatcha gotta do. Do what works, and all that. But thinking about the ads from that perspective sent me pretty much back to my original thesis, which was that those ads creep me out. They do their psychological job, all right … although I haven’t gone to by insurance from Allstate, so maybe they haven’t done their economic job. Take that.

In the short term, fear can be a highly effective (if perhaps not “great”) motivator. Over the long haul, though? … Umm.


Let’s see how long the “Mayhem” lasts.


May 15, 2012 Posted by | media, television | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment