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Al truism in prime time

Hill Holliday turns to stars for Liberty Mutual campaign on NBC

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / October 23, 2009

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At first, they look like mini-films or extensions of NBC shows.

In one vignette, Anthony Anderson, who stars in “Law and Order,’’ defines personal responsibility. He then introduces his short film, which features costar Jeremy Sisto shooting hoops with a boy. They ask a lonely young boy to join them.

The film shorts are commercials and part of a collaboration between NBC and Liberty Mutual for the insurer’s Responsibility Project campaign, which aims to spark a conversation about the meaning of personal responsibility and how that theme ties in with the insurance company. Directed by five NBC actors, the one-minute ads appeared this month during the network’s prime-time shows such as “Heroes,’’ “Law and Order,’’ and “30 Rock.’’

At a time when cable and the Web are competing for people’s attention, more ad agencies are looking for creative ways to plug their clients’ products. In the case of Liberty Mutual, Boston ad agency Hill Holliday used the people-helping-people concept as a branding tool to promote something as in tangible as insurance. The ongoing tagline for the campaign: “Responsibility, what is your policy?’’

“The objective was pretty simple, to try and create a broader dialogue about responsibility but not in a finger-wagging way,’’ said Paul Alexander, senior vice president of communications at Liberty Mutual Group. “Insurance can be abstract but at its core, it’s about emotion. It’s about helping people live and securing safer lives.’’

The NBC ads are the latest part of the Responsibility Project campaign, which originally launched in 2006 as a way to show people personal acts of responsibility. The campaign was born after months of research and interviews with hundreds of Liberty Mutual employees, asking them: What does the insurer do that makes its relationship with existing customers work?

The answer: Doing the right thing. Researchers also found that consumers felt that being responsible and performing good deeds often go unrecognized.

“Liberty saw an opportunity in the insurance space to recognize responsible behavior of policy holders,’’ said Mike Sheehan, Hill Holliday’s chief executive. “It was important to find something emotional that people can latch on to.’’

That resulted in national ads featuring people doing good deeds. Last year, the project evolved with a blog and a website featuring discussion guides and a series of short films by well-known directors - all promoting the message of doing something nice for someone else.

Earlier this year, the Boston insurer struck a deal with the Peacock network to be the prominent sponsor of a two-hour premiere for a miniseries called “Kings’’ - which followed a soldier who rescues the daughter of a king and, as a result, gets a new life. The other part of the deal was the mutually developed one-minute film project, which aired each weekday last week. The ads are also available at www.responsibilityproject.com.

Hill Holliday would not disclose the cost of the campaign.

Each of the film shorts indirectly asks the viewer, “What would you do?’’

One commercial, directed by former “Friday Night Lights’’ star Connie Britton, looks more like a mini-documentary and highlights the message of reaching out and helping orphans in your neighborhood - whether it’s Los Angeles or Ethiopia. Another, directed by “Heroes’’ cast member Milo Ventimiglia, is more lighthearted. That one tells the story of a do-gooder, played by a fellow “Heroes’’ costar Masi Oka, who finally receives his overdue thank you.

NBC officials say the ads gave their actors another role - a chance to direct. And the shorts also gave viewers another reason to stay tuned to an NBC show by introducing that program’s actor in a different way.

“We can look at ways to combat the DVR and make that entertainment factor of prime time a richer experience than expected,’’ said Barbara Blangiardi, senior vice president of creative partnerships and innovations at NBC Entertainment. “It doesn’t tie into the story line of the shows, but it connects to the talent on our air.’’

Liberty Mutual is still evaluating whether it will continue to do more of the short films with NBC, but Alexander did say the program was a success.

Chris Cakebread, an advertising professor at Boston University, thought the collaboration between a major network and its client was unique.

“Overall, this is a good example of a major network aligning itself with a significant advertiser so that, in theory, both benefit from the this partnership,’’ he said.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.