Bug-chasing used to be such an innocent pastime. Schoolboys would scuttle around playgrounds and parks, gathering up worms, ladybirds and daddy longlegs and then scare schoolgirls with them, blissfully unaware of the fact that most of them would spend their teenage years trying not to scare girls but in fact trying to attract them. Usually with little success.
But today, as with all tomorrows, we live in less simple times than yesterday.
Today, “bug-chasing” means the unusual and quite inventive practice of having unprotected sex in an effort to become HIV+ or to “give” HIV to a willing partner.
It’s been claimed that parties take place where participants know that one (or more) of the group is HIV positive – the questions, of course, being who might have it and who might catch it?
This admittedly niche hobby – the welcome development of anti-retroviral drugs means it is (so I’m told) a bit passé nowadays – seems to have emerged first among the gay scene in San Francisco and other cities in the US.
Then, reports emerged that it had caught the imagination of the – gay, straight and in-between – super-rich in Serbia. “Serbian roullette”, it was claimed, then caught on among other elites across Europe.
Then, at the other end of the social demographic spectrum, it sparked the imagination of workless teenagers in recession-smashed southern European countries who thought “we’re stuffed in any case and so why the hell not?”
Naturally, there are various pop “academic” theories around the prevalence or psychology of this kind of thinking or activity – or, indeed, other forms of extreme risk-taking.
Some pop behavioural psychologists suggest it is evidence of mental ill-health and a form of self-harm that could be linked to nihilistic feelings of futility.
Other theories posit that it adds an extra “thrill” during sex – a type that rarely exists today due to the rise of on-demand sex tie-up apps and the demise of the now rare and almost nostalgic hobby of cottaging.
And some theories suggest that some folk on either the gay scene or the super-rich circuit have had everything that sex or money can provide and so they’re looking for an elusive shot of whatever rapidly-diminishing adrenaline is left in the tank.
Whatever the reason, I don’t judge and it’s none of my business (despite reports to the contrary, I am not workless; neither am I – the cheap suits aren’t a disguise – super-rich; nor am I gay, although knowing my luck, nobody would pick me at the party even if I was).
But – stay with me now – there are lessons from the bug-chasing scene and the current coronavirus craze that are applicable to the world of protection insurance.
Fatalism, resignation, nihilism, realism. Or sometimes self-obliteration in hope of resurrection or redemption.
Call it what you will, but sales of health and protection insurance are rooted in a similarly, fundamentally resigned outlook that is looking for a glimmer of hope.
Most folk aren’t bug-chasers (unless I’m the only one that never gets invited to the party).
But most of us are guilty of fatalism, over-reaction and irrationality in everyday life.
Take, for example, the almost Kierkegaardian sense of dread – an almost suicidal capitulation to an existential fatal threat – that is the feature of today’s COVID-19 zeitgeist.
It is probably as far from rational as you can get.
But it is manifest.
It certainly isn’t rational to have a fight in a supermarket aisle or car park over rapidly rationed supplies of a certain brand of toilet roll (other brands will not be available either by the time you read this).
None of this activity – fighting in car parks over rationed loo roll or playing Serbian roulette – can be said to be rational.
Neither, you could argue, are reports that an increasing number of individuals are engaging in coronavirus “herd infection” where they – and to be fair, some public health “experts” don’t mind this – are willing supplicants to the disease in a similar way to those infamous bug-chasing parties for adults or those bizarre chickenpox parties that well-intentioned parents drag their infants to.
None of this is “rational”. But then again, to me, the idea of private jets whisking the super-rich off to make fatuous appearances at “climate emergency” shindigs or to nuclear bunkers or private islands – or out of Europe to beat President Donald Trump’s (completely rational, by the way) travel ban – in an effort to avoid COVID-19 isn’t rational either.
Puzzling: Experts say that employee benefit consultants and financial advisers should pass the official Toilet Roll Supply Diploma from, erm, the University of Nowhere, before they even think about looking after frivolous second-tier needs like the health/financial wellbeing and resilience of their clients
To others, though, it is perfectly rational. It makes perfect sense.
But no behaviour is rational or irrational to everyone, of course – because behaviours are human.
As adman and all-round brainbox and good egg Rory Sutherland points out, marketeers and product development departments often get shipwrecked trying to cater to what they would imagine to be consumers’ “rational” economic impulses.
The absurdity of the need for pensions auto-enrolment speaks volumes about the “rationality” or otherwise of most of us. Economists and actuaries at pensions providers and employee benefit consultancies have gone to the grave bewildered by the fact that many – if not most – people turn down what is, effectively, free money in terms of pensions contributions.
“Why have more tomorrow when I can have something – albeit much less – now?”
Likewise, “why take advantage of potentially useful free or discounted health and protection benefits offered by my employer when I can spend that flex contribution on trinkets and baubles today?”
Neither thought process makes sense, surely. Neither can be said to be truly rational.
Funeral insurers and over-50s plan insurers know this. They know that there is no point trying to coax individuals into buying a funeral plan simply by offering them a £200 discount.
Give the punters a gift voucher for £100 at some crappy online retailer that they will forget to use or a cheap ballpoint pen that they will inevitably lose – do that and then they might go for it, especially if their premiums pay for national “treasures” Michael Parkinson and Alan Titchmarsch to tell them that it’s the right thing to do, even though it is often quite the opposite.
Or private medical insurers – give the punters a discounted smartphone and they’ll probably forget they’ve even bought the actual insurance in the first place (plus you and your retail partner get hold of that all-important consumer data).
Or car insurers – do you want a fluffy toy or do you want a cheaper premium? To some people, fluffy toys aren’t just cute – they’re rational.
You get the idea.
As Sutherland says, for marketeers, trying to explain irrational consumer behaviours to “rationally”-minded senior executives that hold the advertising and marketing purse strings is far from easy.
In light of the ongoing coronavirus calamity, it might be worth bearing all of this rationality and irrationality in mind.
As the world plunges into recession as a result of COVID-19 (or rather as a result of mass hysteria around it), the insurance industry must hold its nerve and hold the line.
It must be hard for life offices and insurers to resist dangling a coronavirus carrot to boost protection sales. Or to pump out case studies of individuals saved from coronavirus hotspots or of families saved from the brink of COVID-19 penury.
Yet the NHS, of course, won’t
miss such a trick. Each year, its annual
fundraising drive “winter
crisis” kicks in – although this time around, COVID-19 seems to have grabbed
the headlines and, handily, a blank cheque from the Treasury.
Once COVID-19 passes, as it shall, the NHS and its “hard-working” staff – you know, the ones that work WAY harder than anyone in the private or third sector – will gain all the plaudits, another blank cheque and lots of knighthoods for middle managers, MBEs for cleaning staff and kisses and cuddles (and elbow bumps) on the way.
It would be tawdry of health insurance and protection providers to capitalise on the current COVID-19 mass hysteria in a similar way.
Trying to flog short-term protection solutions in the current environment would be, well, short-term. And the optics of doing so in the wake of the PPI scandal would be self-defeating for the broader protection industry.
But it might be worth understanding and, sadly, accepting the fact that some individuals prefer to wrestle each other in supermarket aisles and car parks in a pathetic scrum over bog roll and useless hand sanitisers than take up the offer of employer-funded pension contributions or discounted (or employer-funded) health and protection benefits.
Immediate, tangible benefits – especially if it’s double-cushioned or (and this is weird) scented – can turn a lot of consumers and employees on, even if to an actuary they seem like irrational small beans compared to far richer employee benefits that might be on offer.
It might also be worth understanding and accepting that a significant number of people will never just calm down, use napkins, tissues, kitchen roll or old copies of Health Insurance & Protection magazine if loo roll runs out.
And they will never, ever, use their hand, soap and water.
Because you know what? I always try to understand and to accept – and I never judge.
Well, I don’t. Not normally.
But when it comes to turning down “free” pensions contributions or discounted health and protection benefits that can look after the wellbeing and independence of you and your family? Or when it comes to fisticuffs over bog roll in supermarket aisles and car parks? Then, I might make an exception.
Because for some reason – and it might well be irrational – it is all really starting to bug me.