In the black and white photo, the wrinkles spread outward from the corners of a man's eyes like beams of light refracted.
As the consequences of years of smiling would suggest, the wrinkled man, George's father, is remembered for being well-liked – a beautiful person from whom George inherited a love of music he passed on to his own kids. But there is one thing George's dad left behind that he swore never to pass on: the painful process of arranging his funeral.
George's story is just one in a series of videos released this month as part of a new campaign for the Greater Toronto-area network of cemeteries and funeral homes, Mount Pleasant Group. But the campaign also signals a shift in advertising strategy that Mount Pleasant's vice-president of marketing, Rick Cowan, believes will spread to the rest of the funeral industry in coming years as traditional mail advertising wanes, and the demands of an aging boomer generation increase competition. He says that the slow-to-change industry will need to invest much more in digital marketing to make an impact with a consumer population hesitant to think about death.
"We need to change this up," Mr. Cowan said.
The three short films, which profile people thinking about how they want to be remembered, are now playing as part of the pre-show in Cineplex movie theatres. The company has also bought online advertising space, and print ads are running in local community newspapers. It is all pushing people to a dedicated website called The Art of Saying Goodbye.
The prominence of running trailer-type ads in cinemas and rolling out a digital-heavy advertising campaign is relatively new for the industry. Mount Pleasant Group, like many other cemetery and funeral home owners, has in the past focused mostly on print ads and direct mail pieces. Those methods worked, but in recent years the company noticed response rates beginning to wane. It's a widespread problem.
"Direct mail is not what it used to be, and even telephone marketing with the do-not-call lists and everything, a lot of our members have just stopped telemarketing," said Robert Fells, executive director of the International Cemetery Cremation & Funeral Association. "The purpose is not to offend people or make them angry."
Beyond the declining effectiveness of older methods of advertising, the marketing challenge for this industry is obvious: People don't like to think about death, least of all their own.
"People don't wake up on a Saturday morning and say, 'Gee, it's a nice day. I'm going to go get me a deal on a cemetery plot,'" Mr. Fells said.
A digital campaign, however, is tailor-made for the soft sell. People can think about the issue at their own pace, explore different options, and do not have to speak with a sales representative right away.
For that reason, a growing number of cemeteries and funeral homes have built websites with images of the grounds, pricing information, and other key information. But the "death-care" industry is relatively slow to embrace new methods. Many websites tend to be fairly basic, and the industry has not moved heavily into digital the way most other advertisers have.
Mount Pleasant Group wants to change that.
"It is going to become core to where organizations have to be in our industry," Mr. Cowan said. "This is going to be a revolutionary shift."
The new website is purposefully unbranded, for the most part. Visitors can watch the films, then are given some quiz questions about what sort of music they'd want at their funeral, for instance. The answers are not important, Mr. Cowan said – the site is designed simply to make people think. The company's brand does not appear until the very last screen of the website, with contact information to be used "when you're ready to take the first step."
The opportunity for the conversation is clearly there: More than eight out of 10 Canadians believe that pre-planning one's own funeral "is the right thing to do in order to spare loved ones the financial and emotional burden while trying to grieve," according to a study released in August by online research firm Research Now and commissioned by Everest Funeral Package LLC. Despite that widespread belief, however, the study also found that only 9 per cent of Canadians have taken the uncomfortable step of planning their own memorials.
That huge gap between belief and action is what Mount Pleasant Group is targeting here, speaking especially to baby boomers aged 55 to 65. The boomer demographic coming into their senior years are transforming the industry, not only by making it more competitive, but also because they are eschewing cookie-cutter funerals for services that more closely reflect their personalities.
The videos released in this campaign are beautifully shot, made to look more like short films than ads, said Dave Carey, a partner at Toronto-based ad agency Union. The agency worked with a casting company called Jigsaw that specializes in finding real people for projects. They narrowed it down to a small cast of characters for the videos, including George, as well as a couple named Karlene and Michael who are dealing with his cancer diagnosis. Their touching story focuses not on Michael's illness but on their mutual love of adventure and their support of each other over a 32-year relationship.
"It's about shifting the culture of death into a celebration of life," Mr. Carey said.
But mortality just ain't what it used to be. According to Mr. Fells, in the 19th century it would not be considered strange for a family to spread out a blanket for a picnic lunch at the cemetery when the weather was fair. It was a way of communing with the deceased, he said – an unfortunate normalcy borne from the fact that people died younger. These days, people often reach adulthood having dealt with the death of a loved one only very rarely. That is a good thing, but it has made death a more discomfiting topic.
Bob Hope made light of this near the end of his life: When his wife asked where he'd like to be buried, he famously replied, "Surprise me."
But as good a quip as it was, those marketing the death-care industry are hoping a new generation will take a different approach. George is just one model put forth by the new campaign. In the video, he says he and his wife have planned almost everything.
"Everything except what sandwiches are going to be served."
The campaign website includes quiz questions designed to get Canadians thinking about their own funerals. Some of the poll results so far:
Had you ever thought about your own funeral?
Yes – 55%
No – 45%
Thinking about it now, what would the atmosphere be like?
Intimate – 35%
Celebratory – 30%
Lively – 28%
Formal – 7%
Which parts would be most important?
Storytelling – 43%
Food – 22%
The ceremony – 18%
Pictures/video – 16%
What kind of music would you like played?
Something that rocks – 25%
Something spiritual – 21%
Something popular – 17%
Something traditional – 10%
Other – 27%
What would you be wearing?
What I usually wear – 45%
My Sunday best – 22%
Something new – 18%
Whatever's in season – 15%
Where would you like your final resting place to be?
Something secluded/peaceful – 40%
Near family – 32%
Close to my neighbourhood – 16%
Wherever I'll get the most visitors – 13%
Source: artofsayinggoodbye.com, based on visitors' responses