This "definition" was one of a series written between 1881 and 1906 by Ambrose Bierce, the American journalist, black humorist and, many would say, cynic. Bierce mysteriously disappeared in Mexico shortly thereafter, never to be seen or heard from again, though no one has ascribed this to an embittered insurance industry operative. His corrosive lexicography was ultimately brought together in a small but classic tome, The Devil's Dictionary.
Bierce's entry on insurance was followed by a hysterical exchange between a homeowner and an agent.
Insurance Agent: My dear sir, that is a fine house--pray let me insure it.
House Owner: With pleasure. Please make the annual premium so low that by the time when, according to the tables of your actuary, it will be destroyed by fire I will have paid you considerably less than the face of the policy.
Insurance Agent: Oh dear, no--we could not afford to do that. We must fix the premium so that you will have paid more.
House Owner: How, then, can I afford that?
Well, you get the idea.
Anyhow, this came to mind recently when I was thumbing through the Long Island Sunday paper, Newsday. Having dispensed with the important stuff, the comics and the sports pages, I eventually arrived at the opinion section and read the following letter from an irate reader and policyholder under the headline, "Insurers are just greedy 'bookies.' "
Shades of Ambrose Bierce, I thought!
"Let's face it: All insurance is just a form of legalized gambling," wrote William Hastback of Smithtown, N.Y., a man, as it turned out, who knows how to turn a phrase and to extend a metaphor.
"But in the insurance racket, the companies are the house and have the odds stacked 100 percent in their favor," Hastback continued. "Their actuaries have computed the risk associated with offering insurance to cover everything and have determined exactly which risks to cover and which to avoid. The insurers greedily rake in all the wagers, in the form of premiums, but then when the going appears that it may get rough, they want to get out of town, like some two-bit sports bookie after a client hits a long shot.
"Unlike casino gambling, the bettor (policyholder) really never wins, because in order to collect, the bettor must first suffer a calamitous loss.
"Now, the major property insurers in the Long Island, N.Y., area are bailing out. You can bet the house that they won't return our wagers (billions of dollars in policy premiums) that they've been happily collecting during the recent years of record profits. Just like the sleazy bookie, they have no ethics. After speaking my mind, I'm sure I'll get my cancellation notice. Wanna bet?"
Note the recurrence of words like "racket," "gambling," "bookie," "the odds stacked," "wagers," "greedily," "bet," and "sleazy." You may disagree with the letter writer's spin and castigate his na´vetÚ and downright unfairness on the subject of how the insurance business works. Nonetheless, this points once again to the public relations hole the insurance industry has dug itself into through the years, in this context well over a century, and the hole that second- and third-tier agencies and brokerages especially, which have relegated the insurance communication function to nonprofessionals, have to dig themselves out of.
Remember, the ghost of Ambrose Bierce lives on!
THOMAS SLATTERY, a veteran editor and writer on industry affairs for more than 40 years, is also the managing director of Slattery-Esterkamp Communications, Baldwin, N.Y.
TOP 5 MOST READ SEPTEMBER STORIES:
1. Innovation: The Tortoise and the Hare
2. Rousmaniere: The 'IT' Thing in Comp
3. Innovation: Shackled Souls
4. A Firestorm of Lawsuits Over Global Warming
5. Innovation: Gaining Acceptance
October 1, 2007
Copyright 2007© LRP Publications