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Advertising: Divorce Becoming More Common in Campaigns

Divorce is the kind of unhappy topic advertisers typically like to avoid.

Yet in recent years, divorce has become just another backdrop in advertising as marketers recognize that millions of "typical" American couples have dissolved their marriages. Advertisers like Volvo, Nissan Motor, Ingka Holdings' Ikea, Volkswagen, and even Hallmark Cards have all used divorce in one way or another and usually with some poignancy.

The newest television commercial to deal with the subject is from John Hancock Financial Services, and it is different because it bluntly spotlights the negative side of divorce. The spot is set in a kitchen as an obviously tired mother is told by her ex-husband, only moments after imploring him to "do more" for their son, that his girlfriend wants him to move to California. "You tell Joey that, you tell him," the woman says. The campaign's theme is "Insurance for the unexpected. Investments for the opportunities."

That advertisers are including divorced families in commercials says that American society accepts it as a fact of life, said Jack Trout, a Greenwich, Conn., marketing consultant and author of marketing books. Hancock declined an interview about its advertising, as did its agency, Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos in Boston, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.

"The stigma has been off for a long time, and we as a society are more accepting of divorce," Mr. Trout said. "But I do think you have to approach the subject with a high degree of delicacy, and it's probably better to give it a positive twist."

But given the sensitivities of divorce, why even take on such a risky issue in advertising? Can divorce sell products?

Volvo, a subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company, ran an ad called Custody last year as a way to be contemporary and relevant to its customers, many of whom are families. Indeed, to always avoid divorce in advertising as if it did not exist would be deceitful and "insulting" to consumers, said Michael Lee, managing partner at the Volvo agency, Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG in New York, part of the Euro RSCG Worldwide unit of Havas Advertising.

Messner Vetere created the Volvo spot last year. It showed a father handing over the keys to the Volvo after returning from a weekend with his daughters. The idea is that wherever the children go, so goes the Volvo, which is known for its safety, Mr. Lee said. Messner Vetere, he noted, created its first national spot touching on divorce in 1991 for MCI Communications' personal card.

"Volvo is very much about connecting with families and without being preachy in any way; the contemporary family today is about the people you love," Mr. Lee said. "It's not just Mom, Dad, two kids and a dog."

Mr. Lee said Hancock's heart- wrenching approach was probably part of its strategy to reach a specific audience, namely single mothers in need of financial advice. Volvo's objective was to reach a broad audience by "reflecting real life and real situations," he said.

Several ad critics found the Hancock ad depressing. But Barbara Lippert, an ad critic for the trade publication Adweek, applauded its realism, and also liked a second Hancock spot of a single mother who turns down her lover's marriage proposal to take care of her, saying, "We can take care of ourselves."

"I especially liked that horribly tense feeling in the kitchen; I appreciated the reality," Ms. Lippert said.

Indeed, Hancock's spot reflects the now accepted view that divorce, though needed, is not easy and has consequences, said Judith Langer of Langer Associates, a research and trend consulting company in New York. Hancock might also have picked up on some general anxiety of women about divorce. Research shows that women - even women married for years - view marriage as a precarious state, she said.

"There is a lot of anxiety out there," she said.

For Volkswagen, the idea was to get across a feeling of "new beginnings" in its 1997 TV spot to introduce the Passat, said Tony Fouladpour, a Volkswagen spokesman. The commercial from Arnold Worldwide in Boston, part of the Arnold Worldwide Partners unit of Havas, captured the role reversal of a teenager helping her mother nervously get dressed for a "first" date. Mr. Fouladpour said Passat was portrayed as a car for adults with a bit of attitude and an adventurous spirit.

"We didn't get any real negative reaction, and we did get some positive reactions from women who liked the fact that we had a realistic view," Mr. Fouladpour said.

Still, it is a sensitive topic no matter how you broach it. Ms. Langer said that despite Hancock's realism, the approach was risky and could make people feel uncomfortable. Ms. Lippert, meanwhile, criticized Hallmark's spot for being, perhaps, a bit too happy. Created last year by Leo Burnett USA in Chicago, part of the Leo Burnett Worldwide unit of the Bcom3 Group, the spot showed a separated or divorced mother - it was never stated - dropping off her son with his father when the son gives his Dad a card telling him he is still his hero. The commercial ends with the estranged parents sharing a cup of coffee.

Ms. Lippert said she believed the ending indicated the parents might get back together, which she said is a false image to project for children since most parents do not get back together. But a Hallmark spokeswoman, Rachel Bolton, said the intent of the spot was simply to show that greeting cards help people communicate.

"The underlying sentiment is that sending supportive cards can have a huge impact on people's lives, and that it's a comfortable way to approach situations or subjects that might otherwise be more difficult," she said. "It opens the door to communication."

Ms. Bolton said tests showed the commercial worked, and she noted that divorce cards do sell now - unlike Hallmark's first failed effort at a divorce card in 1958. Just to indicate how accepting society has become, she said, Hallmark introduced a line of cards this year for stepfamilies and so-called blended families.


Patricia Winters Lauro, The New York Times. October 12, 2000

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