the ex-files

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In a dimly lit suburban kitchen, a divorced couple is quarreling bitterly. The thirtysomething woman tells her ex-husband that he's not doing enough for their son. He retaliates that he's never missed a payment. She responds that he just doesn't get it. And then, almost as if he's trying to prove her point, the man says that his girlfriend wants him to move to California. "You tell Joey that, you tell him," she replies.

It's the type of scene typically reserved for the movies. But this unsparing portrayal of divorce is part of a commercial for John Hancock Financial Services, the Boston-based investment and insurance products giant. Last fall, the company broke new ground by becoming one of the first advertisers to acknowledge the previously verboten topic of divorce in a national marketing campaign - a move some industry experts view as a harbinger of things to come. Since 1960, the divorce rate in the United States has more than doubled, and the likelihood that a couple will one day dissolve their marriage now exceeds 40 percent, yet marketers are just beginning to think of divorcees as a cohort ripe for examination. And perhaps the most neglected segment within that cohort are the scores of financially disenfranchised women the divorce trend has produced. "Divorce is a terrible fact of life that has been shoved under the rug for too long," says Anne Marshall, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based marketing research group WomanTrend. "We need to find a way to reach the divorced population by showing what's really going on in their lives."

To marketers, divorcees have long been something of an elephant in the living room - a neglected, but potentially huge demographic. Although the U.S. divorce rate has dropped somewhat in the past decade (down from 5.3 divorces per 1,000 individuals in 1991 to 4.1 per 1,000 in 1999), the population of divorced Americans is at an all-time high, estimated at nearly 20 million in 1998, up from 11 million in 1980. According to David Popenoe, co-investigator of "The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America, 2000" report, the slight decrease in the divorce rate is largely attributable to compositional population changes: The aging of the Baby Boomers, a reduced marriage rate, and more cohabitation. Although a majority of divorced persons eventually remarry, the growth in the number of divorces has led to a steep increase in the percentage of adults who are currently divorced. This figure, which was only 1.8 percent for males and 2.6 percent for females in 1960, more than quadrupled by 1998. The country has a higher percentage of divorced females than males because men are more likely to remarry.

This reality has spawned a sword-of-Damocles effect for divorced women and their children. While women are most often the initiators of divorce and are finding it easier to get out of bad marriages, they - along with their youngsters, who most often reside with them - may lose in terms of economies of scale. A new household must be set up, yet the ability to share expenses is lost. Over time, the economic situation for the child may deteriorate, with the offspring coming to rely primarily on the earnings of the mother, whose paycheck is typically much less than that of the father. What that means, says Popenoe, "is that women will take the financial hit to get out of a bad marriage."

Even women in the upper echelons of society can come out losers in divorce proceedings. Take the case of Lorna Wendt, ex-wife of former GE Capital CEO Gary Wendt. In 1995, Wendt's husband of more than 30 years asked for a divorce, offering his wife a $10 million settlement. According to Wendt, she believed that her role as a corporate spouse entitled her to more - especially with her husband's net worth estimated at $100 million. In court documents, Wendt said, "Marriage is a partnership, and I should be entitled to 50 percent. I gave 31 years of my life. I loved the defendant. I worked hard and I was very loyal." Her ex's position: "When all the media hype, feminist theory, and rhetoric are put aside, this case is relatively simple and straightforward. It involves a long marriage and a large estate, the distribution of which is governed by a Connecticut statute that has been on the books for almost 25 years." In 1997, a Connecticut judge awarded Wendt some $20 million, a settlement she is still contesting.

To be sure, divorce is difficult for both parties. Men don't necessarily walk away with a clean slate. Expenses such as alimony and child support take a bite out of their finances too. But women suffer more long-term effects - regardless of their income. And those who play the role of wife, mother, and caregiver, without involvement in financial matters, pay a particularly stiff price when the marriage ends. Although most women have an income-earning capacity upon marriage, they often lose this income potential because of job relocation for the husband and an overall emphasis on child care and domestic work, experts say. Caregiving can cost individuals more than $695,000 over their lifetime in lost wages, lost Social Security, and pension contributions. As a result, family caregivers miss opportunities for career training, promotions, and plum assignments, according to a 1999 study by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., the National Alliance of Caregiving, and the National Center for Women and Aging at Brandeis University. And the National Center for Women and Retirement Research in Southhampton, New York estimates that for every year a woman stays home caring for a child, she must work five extra years to recover lost income, pension coverage, and career promotion.

For many women who do work outside the home, even no-fault divorce can be a financial disaster. Because these career women still make less money on average than their spouses, they are often left with little negotiating power when it comes to financial settlements in no-fault divorce cases, explains economist Allen M. Parkman, author of Good Intentions Gone Awry: No-Fault Divorce and the American Family.

Cindy Hounsell of the Women's Institute for Secure Retirement, a Washington, D.C-based nonprofit organization that educates women about retirement issues, says that one of society's most pervasive myths is that women "do well" after divorce. She contends that about half of all women who work outside the home are employed in traditionally female, low-paying jobs without pensions. "There's a huge disparity in income, which only gets worse after divorce," says Hounsell, a public interest lawyer. "People think women have made great strides. Sure, some have. But when people take an objective look at the numbers, they just freak."

According to the Institute's findings, 3 in 4 working women earn less than $30,000 annually, and 9 in 10 earn less than $40,000 a year. Divorced women over the age of 65 receive an average of $6,973 a year, or $581 a month, from Social Security. And since most marriages end in less than 10 years, the majority of women are not eligible for a portion of their husband's Social Security earnings.

Despite this less than stellar financial picture, experts say the cohort of the divorced female may be an untapped reservoir for marketers. In focus groups conducted for her clients - a list that includes Lifetime Television, Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, Elizabeth Arden, and Goodmark Foods - WomanTrend's Marshall concluded that single working mothers "are the most interesting people" in the group. And according to the Census Bureau, 30 percent of total households were maintained by women with no husband present in 1998. "These are women who are operating in a realist prism, and what they want are products and services that buy them some time," says Marshall, citing that one-third of American women spend 30 minutes or less per day on personal activities. A divorced woman with children, she believes, has even less time for any personal activities, since she is struggling to re-establish a career and has caregiving responsibilities.

To that end, divorced women are a particularly good audience for makers of convenience products. Packaged goods, including food products and medicine cabinet staples; financial planning services; insurance; and home building may be areas for marketers willing to look behind the statistics, industry experts say. Scott Millhorn, vice president and media director of Cleveland-based Marcus Advertising, believes a campaign focused on the harried single parent and fast food is a "natural." "About half of us out there know the realities of divorce, and kids, and trying to make everything work," says Millhorn, citing the popularity of the prime-time drama Once and Again, which deals with divorce and the blending of families. "There's an ugly side to divorce, but there's also a chance for a new future."

Finding the correct approach for marketing to divorced women may be tricky. Volvo, Volkswagen, and Hallmark Cards have chosen the low-key strategy, using divorce as a backdrop to their campaigns, but avoiding most of the unpleasantness associated with it. John Hancock's more direct approach, on the other hand, is getting mixed reviews. "The most effective advertising speaks to emotions," says Millhorn, who also entered the ranks of the divorced recently. "But the last thing a client wants for its products or services is the association of negative emotions."

Still, Marshall believes more and more advertisers may follow John Hancock's lead in acknowledging the divorced woman in marketing campaigns. "We're still trying to figure out how to talk to women in general, and the single woman in particular," says Marshall. "The divorced woman is still a few clicks away." But any marketer who wants to be ahead of the curve must make the case "that we know divorced women, and it's time to acknowledge their existence," she says.

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