The language that they use

In the retail downturn of recent months, the post has been full of (well, smattered with) loyalty discount coupons from stores such as M&S and John Lewis. The latest deliveries have brought discount vouchers from Marriott Hotels and Kuoni to ensure that I book my holidays with them. So when I felt a sturdy envelope from my insurance company, Royal & Sun Alliance, I expected nothing less than a few pounds off the renewal of my house and car insurance.

Instead, I got this infantilizing ‘thank-you’ card. ‘We’re really chuffed that you’re sticking with us’, it simpers. No hard cash, though. As a customer who’s already paid up, there’s clearly no need to treat me any better.

Which set me thinking about the language that insurance companies use. Royal & Sun Alliance trade as More Than (actually, it’s MORE TH>N). By a strange twist, this echoes the motto, dating from 1911, of the Pearl Assurance Company Limited (now streamlined to ‘Pearl’): Damus plus quam pollicemur (We give more than we promise).

In 1911 it was thought appropriate for a financial institution to dress itself up with a coat of arms and a Latin motto that, even then, was above the heads of most of its customers. Now it’s assumed that customers relate more to Teletubbies than to human beings. In both cases it seems that image (‘respectable’ in 1911, ‘friendly’ in 2009), rather than clarity of communication, is what financial institutions are all about.

See A dictionary of mottoes by Leslie Gilbert Pine (Routledge, 1983). The Pearl advertisement is from Future Books II, c.1946.