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The pre-death selling of post-life products.

The pre-death selling of post-life products

'I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens' is a great one-liner from US cinema director, actor and comedian Woody Allen precisely because it sums up the attitude many of us would like to have towards our own mortality.

And when Allen says, 'There are worse things in life than death. If you've ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know what I'm talking about,' he strikes precisely at one of the problems facing marketers who are trying to sell what they sometimes euphemistically label 'post-life services'.

Most of us do not want to contemplate our own death. If forced to do so, we would rather it were not in the company of an insurance salesman.

MaryLou Costa (M14, MW) explains that Aviva's two-year life-insurance campaign, featuring comedian Paul Whitehouse as a deceased father looking down on his family, was produced in conjunction with bereavement charity Grief Encounter to ensure that the right insight into the grief process was achieved.

Some observers welcome such advertising as a way of widening discussion about death and breaking down taboos. Others, perhaps, feel it might exploit people's guilt and manipulate them emotionally into buying life insurance.

In the aftermath of Aviva's campaign, MaryLou Costa describes the Co-operative Funeral Care's light-hearted TV advertisements showing people planning the celebration of their life through selecting their favourite songs and even how they will arrive at their own funerals.

The advertisements highlighted the importance of people understanding the emotional and financial benefits of planning for their funeral during their lifetime.

Ouidadi Sabri (European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 46 No. 1-2, 2012) considers the wider theme of taboo subjects in advertising. The author defines taboo advertising as 'that which uses images, words or settings to evoke a taboo for a proportion of the target audience. It can shock or offend by transgressing internalised norms or by triggering emotionally ambivalent responses, such as simultaneous excitement and guilt.'

Ouidadi Sabri describes how the Aids crisis of the mid-1980s gave rise to the first advertising messages advocating the use of condoms. Benetton advertisements subsequently dealt with such taboos as the sexuality of priests and nuns, homosexuality, racism and capital punishment.

Following that lead, advertisers such as Dior, Sisley, Calvin Klein, French Connection UK, Channel 4 and Breitling began exploiting other taboo themes as a deliberate creative strategy, often with the intention of provoking or shocking the consumer.

Some consumers, of course, are more easily provoked or shocked than others. For example, older people and those who are more conformist tend to be more sensitive to taboo advertising than the young and non-conformist, and religious believers more than non-believers. Children tend to feel more uncomfortable in front of taboo advertising when their parents are around.

The key is for advertisers to present a strong appeal to their target market without unduly alienating the rest of the population. If they can achieve this with humour, so much the better.

As Woody Allen has shown, there are few more fruitful areas for humour than the ultimate taboo subject of death. When he says, 'The key is not to think of death as an end, but more as a very effective way to cut down on your expenses,' he is speaking words that no life-insurance salesman or undertaker is likely to be heard saying - either in the real world or in the taboo-smashing world of advertising.