Israeli Court Bars Ad Defaming Insurance Agents

Controversial ruling says TV character 'Shuka' unfairly denigrated advertiser's competition.

A screengrab from the Direct Insurance ad.
Screengrab

Shuka, the brassy, supremely stupid and incompetent insurance agent who starred in commercials for Direct Insurance, will no longer be abusing and insulting her customers on television and YouTube.

In a controversial decision issued Monday, Tel Aviv District Court Judge Eliahu Bachar ordered the advertisements taken off the air immediately and instructed Direct Insurance to pay 351,000 ($93,000) in court costs, saying they defamed real insurance agents.

“The spots, all of them made professionally and with humor (subjective), ridicule insurance agents and officials humiliate them as people whose profession is dying and should be dying – the excess baggage of the insurance industry whose existence serves no one but themselves,” Bachar ruled.

Certainly, Shuka – played by actress Shani Cohen – did insurance agents’ reputation little good. In one spot, she misinterprets her boss’ instructions to open a new window on her computer and put a file into it by tossing a folder full of documents out the office window. Direct Insurance, one of Israel’s biggest insurers specializing in auto coverage, sells and services policies by phone and online rather than through independent agents.

“The behavior of the defendant in the context of the Shuka campaign was unacceptable. The company sought to increase its market share by harming its competitors, namely insurance agents,” Bachar concluded.

The ads began airing four years ago and quickly elicited a lawsuit by the Association of Insurance Agents and eight agents. After they lost two decisions, Bachar gave them the order they sought.

Aryeh Abramovich, president of the Association of Insurance Agents, praised the decision. “Those who thought that they could degrade us, who thought that defamation is a way to sell insurance got a knockout in court. ... It’s a decision that will end the culture of commercial shaming,” he said.

IDI Insurance, Direct Insurance’s parent company, expressed surprise at the ruling and said it contradicted earlier rulings by the Supreme Court that emphasized freedom of expression and the value of competition.

“It doesn’t square with the trend toward lowering the cost of living and reducing prices for the consumer,” IDI said, saying it would appeal the decision and ask that the order be set aside pending its appeal.

Other advertisers were also upset by Bachar’s decision, terming it censorship.

“[It] could create a significant and dangerous precedent whereby any group that sees itself as offended by a satirical or humorous ad can ask that it be taken down,” the Israeli Marketing Association, a trade association of Israeli biggest advertising firms, said in a statement. “Humor, freedom of expression and creativity are the lifeblood of advertising,” it said.

Commercials for Direct Insurance.