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Mascots in advertising have been around since the Gerber Baby, Ronald McDonald, Mr. Peanut, and Tony the Tiger.
The GEICO insurance company is credited with rolling out the first animated mascot, the gecko. They gave him a charming British Cockney accent complete with tiny cars and life-sized props.
Since then, other insurance companies have got on board with their own mascots and found a great way to humanize their brands.
Why do Insurance Companies have Characters/Mascots?
Today, the GEICO gecko, the Aflac Duck, and the white-aproned Flo—and more–are the avatars of insurance industries, whose products are beyond the understanding of ordinary folks. So, insurance mascots and characters bring brand recognition to consumers with adorable white ducks and brown emus, as well as funny skits and spokespersons to make their products more understandable.
This post will highlight ten well-known insurance characters with some backstories and interesting facts.
What Was the First Insurance Mascot?
Our Little Gecko Buddy Was the First
Possibly the most popular, and the game changer that moved insurance advertising from Prudential’s stoic Rock of Gibraltar, is the gecko. The Gecko made its debut in 1999.
The ad gurus at the Martin Agency came up with a doubly brilliant idea: 1) Reinforce the brand name GEICO—Government Employees Insurance Company, 2) and promote the correct pronunciation of the company’s name each time that adorable Cockney reptile shows up in an ad. (The company is pronounced “guy-co” not gecko.)
The gecko came to computer-animated life at about the same time Hollywood screenwriters were getting ready to strike. The ad agency knew that past successful ad campaigns that included animals tended to create a connection between the product and its customers.
If It Talks Like a Duck..
You might not recognize the name of gravel-voiced comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who died April 12, 2022 at age 67. But chances are you’ll recognize his squawk “Aflak!” in the commercial featuring a hilarious white duck.
It occurred to ad executives at the Kaplan Thaler Group in New York City that the insurance company’s name, Aflac—an acronym for American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus—resembled the quacking of a duck.
From its first TV commercial over 20 years ago to over 75 commercials since then, Aflac’s adorable duck has made the company immediately recognizable to 9 out of 10 consumers today.
Speaking of Flightless Birds…
The Lumu Emu (and Doug)
Whoever came up with the idea of using a six-foot-tall, yellow-shirted emu and a retro 1970s human partner, struck gold. The double whammy was the bird’s title, the rhyming “Limu Emu.” Limu is short for “Liberty Mutual.” It’s probably the greatest marriage of animals with instant brand recognition since the Energizer Bunny.
Then there’s that silly sidekick, Doug, played by Doug Hoffman, who plays the straight man in some of the funniest commercials on television—all the while inserting subliminal insurance coverage messages for Liberty Mutual.
…and struggling actors who flub their lines
Headlining another Liberty Mutual ad campaign with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop is the hilarious “struggling actor” schtick, played by Canadian Tanner Novlan. In a series of funny outtakes, he struggles with the simple line “Liberty Mutual customizes your car insurance so you only pay for what you need.”
In a deep, mellifluous voice that doesn’t quite match his youngish, casual appearance, our actor’s tongue-tied screw-ups can’t get him past pronouncing the insurance company’s name—“Bibberty Muchimous…” for example.
So, while we’re laughing at the young, pretentious spokesman, we get the message: “Only pay for what you need.” We end up repeating that slogan in our heads by the end of the commercial.
Allstate’s Mayhem: A Slapstick Look at Bad Things That Can Happen
Designed to get us to rethink the coverage of our current insurance, the Allstate Mayhem campaign features the glib, deadpan actor Dean Winters. The actor appears as a physical example and a beat-up victim when really bad things can happen, which current insurance policies don’t always cover.
Winters plays an unsecured Christmas tree, a distracted driver applying makeup (with sidekick Tina Fey as the victim), and a backseat frisky puppy, who all inflict mayhem on their hapless underinsured victims. Each ad includes warnings about “cut rate” insurance and targets older, more responsible drivers and homeowners.
The Mayhem campaign has its own Facebook page with almost 2 million followers. So, it must work well for Allstate.
Speaking of Mayhem, Jake from State Farm Has To Act Fast
This 30-second gem starts with a husband talking on the phone in the middle of the night: “Yeah, I’m married. Does it matter? Could you do that for me? Really? I’d like that.”
Jake’s furious wife descends in the background and demands, “Who are you talking to?”
“It’s Jake from State Farm.”
At 3 o’clock in the morning the wife doesn’t buy that. She grabs the phone, and the rest is comedy that drives home the fact that it really is Jake from State Farm and he’s on duty 24/7.
The guy playing the State Farm insurance agent wasn’t a struggling actor. He was played by Jake Stone, an actual State Farm employee. Jake ended up as a human mascot for State Farm with a prominent role on their website as well as a Twitter profile.
Speaking of Strong Women, Who Doesn’t Love Flo From Progressive?
Actress/comedian Stephanie Courtney has been doing her Flo character for Progressive insurance since 2014.
Flo is a white-aproned salesperson for Progress Insurance and has appeared in more than 100 ads with a variety of hilarious situations, skits, and quirky colleagues. Stephanie has done double duty playing her mean sister as well as her mother in commercial skits that push Progressive Insurance products.
…And there’s Flo’s dopey male coworker, Jamie.
As Flo’s righthand man, Jamie brings another level of humor to the Progressive commercials. He’s the personification of the quip, “He’s a legend in his own mind.”
Both Flo and Jamie have earned millions in pay and residuals as mascots for Progressive.
J.K. Simmons Adds Class to Farmers Insurance Commercials
Most of us recognize the snappy Farms jingle, “We are Far-mers…” Just as familiar is the insurance company’s famous actor spokesman, J.K. Simmons.
The name might not conjure up instant recognition, but J.K. Simmons is one of those well-established and prolific character actors everyone has seen. He’s been around since 1986 and has appeared in more than 200 film and television roles, winning a Golden Globe and an Academy Award.
Simmons, who projects an aura of experience for the Farmers brand, always ends his commercials with the insurance company’s trademark tagline, “At Farmers, we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”
NFL Stars Became Insurance Salesmen
Peyton Manning on Nationwide
Nationwide hired popular ex-Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, with his sincere and folksy manner. Manning’s funny rendition of the Nationwide jingle “Nationwide is on your side” substituted the lyrics “Chicken parm you taste so good.” The commercial does a good job of imprinting Nationwide’s slogan and jingle.
USAA Spotlighted Rob Gronkowski
USAA offers competitive life, home, and auto insurance to active military, veterans, and their family members. NFL football tight end, Rob Gronkowski, never served in the military, but he was hired as a mascot for USAA.
In one USAA commercial Gronkowski talks on the phone with Stephanie, a very nice and helpful USAA agent. The Gronk wants to get “up to 30 percent off my auto insurance,” but has to hide the fact he never served in the military.
“I can help you with that,” says Stephanie. “What’s your member number?”
Gronkowski, panicking, quickly looks at his football jersey and says “87.”
No, Stephanie politely points out, “It should be between five and 12 digits.”
Busted, Gronk has to admit that he’s not a member. The agent points out that because it only serves military personnel and their families, it’s what makes USAA special.
“Oh, but I’m special!” complains Gronkowski.
The commercial ends with a classic smile and grimace from Stephanie, who lets Gronk’s silly comment stand on its own merits.
Shaquille O’Neal Plays Big Brother for General Insurance Commercial
This General Insurance Commercial starts out with a youngster’s birthday wish: “I wish that Shaq was my real-life big brother.”
To the upbeat background tune of “People let me tell you about my best friend,” Shaq appears and squires the youngster through the rest of the commercial with hijinks and boyish pranks.
Then Shaq shills for the General with a personal endorsement. Says Shaq, “Turns out some wishes do come true. And it turns out that the General Insurance Company has been saving people money for nearly 60 years.”
Shaq has continued his popularity with the ad agency making General commercials. His current gig features his mom, Lucille O’Neal, who is a contestant on a game show, where she responds to quiz questions before they are asked. Shaq does his cameo with “Turns out, moms are always right,” and his standard plug for General Insurance. Both ads fade to the General Insurance log and the animated army general mascot.
The Bottom Line
From the two-foot tall Aflac duck to the seven-footer Shaq, insurance companies have entailed, informed, and, yes, encouraged us to look into their services. Who would have guessed that such a complicated product as insurance–which is really a bet against yourself that something bad could happen–could have been so entertaining?
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