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  • Watch out for new wordings

    December 19, 2010 by Scott Burns

    12:00 AM CST on Sunday, December 19, 2010

    Scott Burns is a syndicated columnist and a principal of the Plano-based investment firm AssetBuilder Inc. E-mail questions to scott@scottburns.com.

    Words are important. Recently, an insurance industry expert declared war on MoneyWatch personal finance columnist Allan Roth. The expert is a self-appointed defender of fixed index annuities.

    What had Roth done?

    He called a fixed index annuity an equity indexed annuity. To show Roth the importance of word choice, the insurance product expert vowed to deliver a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures from offended members of the insurance industry, along with signatures from the chief executives of every major vendor.

    Roth accepted the challenge to change his wording – if 200,000 signatures and the signatures of every insurance CEO whose company sells the product are delivered.

    We normal human beings might think the whole deal is a bit over the top, but that would reveal our lack of theatrical imagination. So let’s work on this a bit.

    Remember Amazing Grace, the wonderful movie about the fight to end the slave trade in England? Well, this could be something like that. The insurance expert could gather the signatures. They could be brought to Roth in a nearly endless scroll.

    With a flourish similar to the gestures of William Wilberforce, the marketer could stand before Roth as though he was the morally errant Parliament. Then the petition could be rolled out with a flourish. The insurance expert could demand that the columnist recant his linguistic crimes – demand that he free the suffering insurance sales force from verbal bondage.

    Are you in tears yet? I didn’t think so.

    The issue here isn’t human freedom. It is marketing. It is branding for a financial product. The only reason I am writing about it is that it affects you and me as consumers of financial products. The issue is who controls the vocabulary that surrounds a product. The right words will sell a product; the wrong words won’t.

    Here, history tells a story. When equity indexed annuities were introduced, they were called, yes, equity indexed annuities. It was a logical choice: the credited yield was based on the price appreciation of an equity index. With the roaring stock market of the ’90s, the word equity made the annuity sexy. Salespeople hinted of investment nirvana –equity-like returns without risk.

    The basic offer was simple: Your investment would get a portion of the capital appreciation of an equity index. In return for giving up both the dividend income and some appreciation, you would never experience a loss.

    But then something really bad happened. Equity prices plunged. Not once, but twice. Perhaps you noticed.

    Today, the S&P 500 index is still below its peak level in August 2000. It first reached its current level 12 years ago. So the word equity went from being a magical selling tool to being a sales killer.

    That’s why the insurance industry has made such an effort to rename the product.

    To this day, the literal-minded folks at places like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority still call equity index annuities just that. This is because the institutions with oversight responsibility don’t get free trips to Hawaii for selling the product.

    The insurance product expert argues that since the industry hasn’t called equity indexed annuities by that name for nearly a decade; neither should Roth or any other journalist. We should only use the chosen vocabulary of the sales force.

    This is not “a failure to communicate.” This is marketing euphemism at work. In the world of product marketing, if a word becomes a problem, the solution is to change it with skilled euphemism.

    This is how pornography got to be adult entertainment. It is how prison got to be correctional facility. It is how a dead hospital patient got to be a negative patient care outcome. It is how a tax got to be a revenue enhancement.

    Words make a difference. They influence how we think. Do you, for instance, think former senator Robert Dole would have gone on television as a spokesperson for Viagra if the pharmaceutical industry had not first magically euphemized impotence into erectile dysfunction?

    Somehow, I doubt it.

    Scott Burns is a syndicated columnist and a principal of the Plano-based investment firm AssetBuilder Inc. E-mail questions to scott@scottburns.com.

    Originally Posted at The Dallas Morning News on December 19, 2010 by Scott Burns.

    Categories: Sheryl's Articles
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