This Memorial Day, Talk Amongst Yourselves

Is it me, or are you also noticing that more television commercials these days feature storylines about someone who has died? There sure seems to be a lot of attention on end-of-life topics. Sheryl Sandberg, who experienced the sudden and unexpected death of her husband a few years ago, was featured in Time magazine and is appearing all over the media, talking about her journey through grief; in fact, in the Time article, Sandberg avows her “new mission to help people through grief and adversity.”

There are a several popular programs on cable TV, too. Ancestry sponsors two television programs on TLC. “Who Do You Think You Are” features celebrities learning about their family history, and “Long Lost Family” features regular people like you and me, who want to find and reconnect with living lost relatives. Both programs show the hosts, experts and guests using Ancestry’s website and DNA testing service. There are other programs, too, including “Finding Your Roots,” “Genealogy Roadshow” and “History Detective,” all offered by PBS.

McDonald’s recently found itself in a controversy with a 90-second British commercial featuring a mom and her son. They were taking a walk and the boy was asking questions to see what he might have had in common with his father. “Did he have blue eyes like me?” he asks. “No, they were brown.” she said. There were a few other questions the boy asked to determine what, if anything, he had in common with his late dad. Each answer was a “no.” At the end of the commercial, the mother and son were sitting down at McDonald’s, the camera panning down to the boy’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich. “That was your father’s favorite, too. Tartar sauce, all down his chin,” she said, as the camera cut to the boy wiping tartar sauce off of his chin.

I thought it was an amazing commercial, connecting me with the mother and child, and the product, too. Social media went wild with backlash for the restaurant chain’s seemingly blatant exploitation of childhood grief. I didn’t get that at all. (And for the record, I put fries inside my Filet-O-Fish sandwich. Yum.)

Another commercial I’ve noticed is from Volkswagen. Have you seen it? An old woman, speaking in an Irish brogue, is reading a letter: “From the day I arrived, I wanted to see this great country,” she reads aloud. “My last wish is for you to do it for me, as a family. Love, Grandpa.” So the family takes a trip across America in their shiny new Volkswagen Atlas.

“How did you meet Grandpa?” asks one of the children. “On a blind date,” Grandma remembers. “I wish he was on the trip with us,” she says. “He’s sitting right between the boys in the back of the car,” says a grandkid. Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” plays in the background. There’s laughter and photos — real paper photos in black-and-white, not the iPhone kind. The St. Louis Arch… the desert, where old westerns were filmed… mountain snow… the Redwoods of California … and finally, the Pacific. At sunset.

Perfect for a shot of Grandma clutching a large urn containing Grandpa who was, in fact, with them on the whole trip. She opens the urn, and the family is in silhouette as Grandpa is cast into the ocean. Cue the announcer: “Life’s as big as you make it. The all-new seven-seater Volkswagen Atlas…”

I can appreciate the creativity in these commercials, and the marketing team’s adherence to a basic rule of advertising: To engage and inspire, you must tap into deep human emotions. But there’s another message for us, and it is pertinent on this Memorial Day weekend; a time when families and friends remember loved ones and mark the unofficial beginning of summer.

Both of these spots, and others similar to them, show the desire for people to remember and connect with their loved ones. It demonstrates that people want to know about how these relatives might have influenced them from how they act and think, to how they look.

Ancestry, National Geographic and 23andMe provide genetic testing kits that help people learn more about their ethnicity, heritage and genetic links to relatives going back hundreds, if not thousands of years. These are boom times for all three companies. Sure, the science behind DNA testing is fascinating and even crucial for people who want to know their risks for certain genetic disorders. But what people really want is to be connected to their family, which thankfully seems to be gaining importance these days.

Which brings me to my point related to the upcoming holiday, or really any holiday when families traditionally come together: It is good and right to remember loved ones who have passed away. But don’t forget that, while you have the chance, you should use your time together with those who are still with you to connect. Talk with your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents; your cousins, aunts and uncles. Learn about them and what makes them who they are. You’ll learn a lot about who you are, too.

Memorial Day is not just a time to commemorate the dead. It’s also a time to celebrate and live life with those who are around you today — right now — which will make future Memorial Days even more meaningful.

So go ahead: Talk amongst yourselves.

Dean Lambert is the Senior VP - Marketing & Communications for Homesteaders Life Company. He is a frequent presenter at funeral association events and has published numerous articles on funeral home marketing and PR. Click here to learn more about the leadership team at Homesteaders.

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