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The "Responsibility Project": When an Insurance Company Promotes "Responsibility," What Is Its Ulterior Motive?


Tuesday, Jun. 17, 2008

About three months ago, I began to notice a new ad campaign in the newspaper and on the Web. Its graphics were sophisticated and self-assured, and the scale of the campaign—one-and-a-half pages in the New York Times—suggested that it was not the work of a little company or group. The campaign is called “The Responsibility Project” and it is sponsored by Liberty Mutual, one of the nation’s largest insurers. It can be seen online at:

To be honest, I wanted to hate this ad campaign. When I planned to write this column a few weeks ago, I assumed that I would read the ads, watch the videos, and figure out all the ways in which it was an example of corporate self-interest masquerading as serious moral engagement.

My final feelings about the campaign, however, are more complex. To be sure, I am extremely uncomfortable about the campaign. And it clearly is an example of corporate self-interest doing something. But what? That is the question I want to explore in this column.

The Most Interesting of the Responsibility Project’s Videos

The best place to start is the first video posted on the website, called “Transit.” There are also others, with slightly obscure titles such as “Father’s Day” (about an absent father) and “The New Boy” (about an African boy’s first day in an Irish school). But “Transit” still strikes me as the most interesting and original film. “Transit” has the look and feel of a film school short—the sort of film done by someone who is earnest, not an advertising agency working for one of America’s largest insurers. It is in black and white, and has a slightly retro feel.

The story, which occurs without dialogue, shows a man carrying a package, who witnesses a purse-snatching at a bus stop. By chance, be gets on the same bus as the thief, who is shown searching through the stolen purse with an air of impunity. The man seems to think about confronting the thief, then falls back, and then at the end of the film, approaches the thief—for what? We don’t know—the film ends at that point.

The point of the film is to set up the real work of the website, which is to ask, in as open and neutral way possible, “What would you do?” in a variety of settings (helping a stranger, confronting a friend who cheats, and so on.). In some ways, The Responsibility Project is a very familiar device. It is a combination of the sort of moral lesson that children’s magazines used to offer with the slightly ironic view of morality exemplified by Randy Cohen, the “Ethicist” in the New York Times Magazine.

How Is the Responsibility Project Helping Liberty Mutual’s Bottom Line?

The question that intrigues me is why an insurance company is spending so much money to promote the obvious point that the “responsible” choice is not always obvious, but is not easily avoided. How does sending this message help the company?

One obvious answer is that it helps Liberty Mutual sell more car and life insurance policies than its competitors. This might be true, and it certainly would explain the massive expenditure. But the ads do not really push the brand of Liberty Mutual very strongly. If anything, what I remembered the first few times I saw the ads was that they were produced by an insurance company, not a specific insurance company.

This led me to my second hypothesis, which is that the campaign is part of a much more subtle form of viral or guerilla advertising. Liberty Mutual probably realizes that, for many people, a direct ad campaign would be ineffective. Sophisticated consumers expect an insurance company to tell them that they are different from all other insurers, and sophisticated consumers may flatter themselves by believing that this sort of claim is exactly the sort of hucksterism that they won’t believe. So that leaves a question for the company to ponder: how to reach them?

The answer might be that Liberty Mutual is trying to prove why it is better than any other insurance company by pretending that it doesn’t want to prove that it is better than any other insurance company. What better way to do this, than by presenting an ad campaign that sells the “project” of insurance, rather than the product of any one insurer?

The problem with this explanation, however, is that The Responsibility Project does not really sell the project of insurance, either. The project of insurance is to sell to consumers a contractual obligation to pay off losses in the event of certain events. The best thing that one can say about an insurer, accordingly, is that it keeps its promises, not that it helps other people out of duty or out of a sense of empathy.

“Responsibility,” then, is a funny word to associate with the insurance industry. It is not that people who work in the industry might not be responsible in their own private lives. It is just that insurance companies don’t pay money to their customers out of sense of responsibility. They do so (or should do so) out of a sense of legal obligation. That is really all we can or should hope from them.

Will Promoting Responsibility Help Liberty Mutual By Changing the Behavior of Those Who Watch the Project’s Videos?

So who is supposed to be “responsible” in The Responsibility Project? The answer, I think, is “us”—the reader of the ads. Liberty Mutual wants to provoke debate over the meaning of “responsibility,” because it hopes that self-consciousness regarding this issue will bring a change of attitude or behavior in us – meaning the people who are insured, or the people who cause the losses that are covered by Liberty Mutual.

If I am right about this explanation, then two further questions immediately come to mind: First, is Liberty Mutual naïve to think that an ad campaign with some videos and some open-ended questions will change people’s behavior? Second, if they are right, and behavior will indeed be changed, is this a good thing? I suspect that the answer to both questions is “yes.”

First, I think that the genius of The Responsibility Project campaign is that it implicitly assumes that most people will answer the rhetorical question “What would you do?” in the same way. Most people would answer aspirationally—by stating to themselves that they would act in a way that is more altruistic or brave than they know they really would behave. The value of this self-deception is that it is the way that virtue is inculcated—by establishing a sense of obligation to conform to a standard which, although ideal, provides a goal or guide for future conduct. Liberty Mutual does not expect (and perhaps does not want) people to confront criminals on buses after a crime has been committed (especially in circumstances in which the commission of the crime and the identity of the criminal is less clear than in the circumstances presented in the video). What they want, instead is for people to feel motivated by the concept of responsibility in a variety of contexts, big and small. In short, they are trying to motivate a repertoire of responses to moral choices.

Is this a good thing? The answer depends on the content of the moral choices generated by the ads.

Blaming the Victim or Laudably Encouraging Personal Responsibility?

Some might assume that if the moral conduct encouraged helps Liberty Mutual’s own business interests, then the campaign is bad, and should be criticized. But why? If the moral choices generated by the ad campaign were to lead people to blame themselves for their own misfortunes, and hence report fewer claims to their insurers, then I would be opposed to the campaign -- but I would not be opposed because the campaign would produce fatter profits for Liberty Mutual. Rather, I would be opposed because a moral viewpoint that tells the victim that he or she is always to blame is morally repugnant.

The nature of the moral conduct encouraged by The Responsibility Project is hard to figure out. The video “Transit” seems to suggest that it is not immoral to regard one’s personal safety as more important than enforcing the law. Other videos seem to suggest that, among the many goals we may have, in the end the goal of keeping ourselves and others from experiencing pain is the most important aspect to living one’s life. The world drawn between the lines in the videos is not a heroic world. It is a world in which people aspire to get along.

I can think of all sorts of reasons why, from a selfish point of view, an insurer might want to encourage a definition of responsibility that is quiescent and conflict-avoiding. I am not sure, however, that it is one with which I can easily disagree. The “responsible people” in Liberty Mutual’s world seem quite modest. Modesty in morality—especially if it is motivated by a desire to avoid causing discomfort—is an interesting conception of responsibility. Thus, in the end, I must applaud Liberty Mutual for promoting this vision, even if, ultimately, it is doing so only in order to promote its own self-interest.

Anthony J. Sebok, a FindLaw columnist, is a Professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. His other columns on tort issues may be found in the archive of his columns on this site.

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