‘Groundhog Day’ and the Shadow of Ned Ryerson

By Allen Wastler
Allen Wastler is a former financial journalist with over 30-years of experience, including time at CNBC, CNN, and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
Posted on Feb 1, 2018

The date insurance professionals hate is almost upon us: February 2. It’s not so much about a rodent popping up and checking the weather, but that a fairly popular movie, “Groundhog Day,” gets remembered and, in some cases, rescreened. And with that movie comes the character Ned Ryerson, possibly one of the worst depictions of an insurance agent … ever.

Sure, there are others with a darker tone. Check out “Double Indemnity” or “The Rainmaker” for a sample. But Ned is probably the more damaging because he reinforces a stereotype, right from the outset, when he grabs Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, on the street.

He badgers and presses Phil about his insurance needs, even after it’s more than obvious Phil isn’t interested. Ned’s constantly asking him if he’s "right" punctuates the entire delivery. Eventually, as Phil keeps reliving the day, which is the conceit of the movie, he comes up with inventive ways of keeping Ned at bay.

Sure, it’s a bit funny. And actor Stephen Tobolowsky did a nice job with the role. But it reinforces an image of insurance professionals as pushy, superficial, and greedy. With depictions like this, it's no wonder insurance salespeople consistently score low marks on public polls about professional honesty and ethics. Take a look at this one from Gallup; insurance salespeople rank below lawyers, journalists, and chiropractors (but above car salesmen and members of Congress).

“The fact is that we are collectively despised and reviled in the main because the modalities that this industry largely teaches are outdated and don’t reflect the sensibilities of the modern American consumer,” said John Ocwieja, a family business specialist with The Hoopis Group in Chicago, in an email exchange. “People don’t want to be sold. They want to be understood.”

Part of that change may be due to the evolution in the general work environment. More Americans are personally managing their own retirement and benefit plans, owing to the eclipse of defined benefit programs, the advent of self-directed retirement plans, and the growth of the gig economy.

As a result, more people are engaging financial professionals. Consumer use of financial advisors increased from 28 percent in 2010 to 40 percent in 2015, according to a survey from the CFP Board.1 (Related: Which financial professional is right for you?)

But what those professionals are providing is well beyond what Ned is peddling in “Groundhog Day.”

“I think that the portrayal of the insurance salesman (like Ned Ryerson) is that of yesteryear,” commented Brian Roberts, CFS®, cofounder of R&F Financial Group in Chesterfield, Missouri, in an email exchange. “Consistently, the image and importance of a life insurance professional as a trusted advisor has risen. With the complexity of product nuances, changing political and tax climates, things just aren’t as simple as they used to be. People's lives are more complex and demand more complex planning solutions and techniques. Therefore, the life insurance professional has become more of a trusted life consultant versus the punch line of a bad joke.”

Not that the insurance protection of financial planning is no longer relevant. In fact, the insurance portion of financial management is growing. The number of people who own some form of life insurance has grown to a record 172 million, according to statistics from the Life Insurance and Market Research Association, a trade organization for life insurers.2

At the same time, most financial professionals agree that their role is growing beyond serving basic insurance needs.

“It was the case 30, 40, 50, and 60 and more years ago that the financial services professional cum life insurance agent went out to the consumer to educate them as to the options, opportunities, and products available to them,” said Ocwieja. “Now every consumer has all of the information they will ever need as close as their smartphone and Wi-Fi hookup. The consumer doesn’t need knowledge now; at least from their perspective. Today and going forward, the consumer needs wisdom. The issue is that they just don’t know it yet. Our challenge is getting them to say: ‘Yes, I want your wisdom. Help me.’”

To that end, many financial professionals are rounding out their own service offerings or forming partnerships with other professionals to allow for a wider range of services for their clients.

That’s actually making the profession a bit more attractive as it focuses more on problem-solving. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of financial advisors will grow by 30 percent in the period from 2014 to 2024. That’s a much faster rate than the average for other professional occupations.

“As the population ages and life expectancies rise, demand for financial planning services should increase,” BLS remarked in its analysis.

Problem-solving and helping people. Sounds pretty good – and a far cry from Ned Ryerson.

Am I right?

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CFP Board, “Survey: Americans’ Use of Financial Advisors, CFP® Professionals Rises; Agree Advice Should Be in Their Best Interest,” Sept. 24, 2015.

LIMRA, “Life Insurance Ownership in Focus,” 2016.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.