By MATTHEW STURDEVANT, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
6:03 PM PST, February 7, 2012
MetLife's most recent TV commercial opens with Charlie Brown strolling alongside Lucy, Linus and other Peanuts characters into a sun-soaked grassy field, a slightly hazy, idyllic scene that could pass for financial stability, the afterlife or California.
Also flocking to the field are dozens of Saturday morning cartoon characters from the 1960s, '70s and '80s — Fat Albert, Magilla Gorilla, Hong Kong Phooey, the Jetsons, Richie Rich, Top Cat, Voltron and many others.
"It really is a metaphor for our family — the Peanuts characters — to join up with other families," said Beth Hirschhorn, MetLife's executive vice president of global brand, marketing and communications. "It wasn't nostalgia for nostalgia's sake. We're metaphorically inviting families from all walks of life."
The relics of retro television tugged at nostalgic feelings of late-generation baby boomers and Generation X members who watched when the commercial debuted Sunday during Super Bowl XLVI. The MetLife ad was an instant hit with people who quickly turned to Twitter, Facebook and blogs to claim it "the best" and "buzziest" of game-day ads.
In the three hours after the ad, traffic doubled to MetLife's mobile-phone applications, the company said. Its website traffic jumped 34 percent.
"Nostalgia, of course, is the easiest path to familiarity and familiarity is the easiest path to 'attention capture,'" said Christie L. Nordhielm, associate professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and a consultant in advertising and marketing.
The nation's largest life insurer is the latest of several companies that have hearkened back to childhood memories of Gen X consumers, those born between 1965 and 1980. Nordhielm said the MetLife commercial also appeals to the tail end of the baby boomer generation, which includes people born in the late 1950s.
For example, when rumors circulated last year that Quaker Oats might be retiring Cap'n Crunch cereal, the outcry on Facebook, Twitter and blogs included laments of childhood memories being stolen or tossed away. Quaker Oats reassured customers that the cereal wasn't going anywhere. The company brought back 1960s packaging, and, later, an offer for a retro 1970s-style T-shirt with a faded Cap'n image and dark blue trim on sleeves and collar.
Separately, bars of Coast soap are on shelves now with limited-edition "throwback" packaging from the late 1970s and an online gallery of decades-old ads to celebrate 35 years.
"I would hesitate to call these isolated images a trend," said Akshay R. Rao, marketing professor and director of the Institute for Research in Marketing at Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.
Rao says the few anecdotes of nostalgic ads don't provide evidence of a trend. Each is likely attempting to achieve a unique goal. For example, Quaker Oats may be reassuring older people who fondly remember Cap'n Crunch that their childhood memories won't be discarded while MetLife could be leveraging its famous logo — Snoopy — for a broader appeal to childhood nostalgia.
Perhaps nobody celebrated the Giants' Super Bowl win more than New York-based MetLife, which employs about 2,000 in Bloomfield.
Just last year, the company won naming rights to MetLife Stadium, the newly built facility in East Rutherford, N.J., which is home to both the Giants and Jets. Naming rights cost $20 million for a 20-year agreement — with no guarantees about a Super Bowl winning team in the first year.
While MetLife is riding the Super Bowl high, however, the life insurance industry is "at an all-time low and sales capacity in a two-decade decline," according to Windsor-based LIMRA, which provides research on the industry.
LIMRA has said the percentage of American households without life insurance coverage increased from 22 percent to 30 percent between 2004 and 2010.
Fifty-five percent of Gen Y-ers and 56 percent of Gen X-ers say they don't have as much life insurance as they need, which translates to 30 million households.
Three in four Gen X-ers are living with a spouse or a partner and more than half have children younger than 18, which is the target audience for life insurers selling financial coverage in case someone dies or as a cash-accumulating product.
Life insurance, however, has to compete with alternative financial products at a time when face-to-face selling has declined and there are enduring negative stereotypes of life insurers, said Nordhielm, the Michigan professor.
Think Ned Ryerson, the life insurance agent from the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day," for example.
The life insurance industry is desperately trying to reach people in their 30s and 40s, trying to shake off notions that it is a staid industry dealing primarily in death coverage.
Last year, AXA Equitable Life Insurance Co. in Farmington launched a Web-based video game urging the importance of life insurance to appeal to people aged 35 to 55, primarily Generation X.
The MetLife Super Bowl ad was an official kickoff to an advertising campaign that hopes to send a message of empowerment to customers. In a typical year, MetLife might spend about $40 million and this campaign is "a little north of that," Hirschhorn said.
The 30-second MetLife ad was done by Miami, Fla.,-based Crispin Porter + Bogusky. MetLife wouldn't say how much it spent on the commercial, but 30 seconds of Super Bowl advertising was priced at $3.5 million. MetLife started the campaign the Monday before the Super Bowl with cartoon characters commenting on Facebook about the company. It later added "out takes" of the commercial, featuring cartoon characters.
"It definitely takes people back, and we wanted to start a dialogue," said Hirschhorn.
As the campaign picks up, customers will see "messages that will get deeper and deeper about what we are offering," Hirschhorn said.
The LIMRA research has shown that people recognize they need life insurance, but they don't end up buying it.
"We're really looking for people to take action," Hirschhorn said.
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