Why insurance adverts are going for laughs

It used to be that insurance was a serious business – maybe not any more

Why insurance adverts are going for laughs

Insurance News

By Lyle Adriano

A referee “way over-explains” his food choice inside a fancy restaurant in the style of sports commentary. An off-screen narrator casually directs viewers who share a similar, no-nonsense attitude that they can enjoy more savings on their car insurance if they make the right switch (GEICO).

Actors Patrick Dempsey, Donald Faison, Neil Patrick Harris, and Kate Walsh all reprise their most famous roles in medical dramas as the “TV Doctors of America,” saying that while they may not know much about medicine, they do know a lot about drama. All four then direct viewers to undergo their annual checkup to avoid any “drama” of their own (Cigna).

Celebrate excellence in insurance. Join us at the Insurance Business Awards in Chicago on October 26.

Two insurance employees casually stroll through an active construction zone. As objects get damaged and people injured, the more senior of the two employees pulls out replacement parts and even personnel from her “magic apron,” much to the shock of her companion (Progressive).

Insurance is hardly a fun and exciting industry, but it has produced some of the most humorous advertisements in recent memory. Humorous marketing approaches might sound irreverent to insurance, but the strategy has proven to be highly effective – so much so, that almost every major insurer is jumping on to the funny bandwagon with their own memorable ads.

Decades ago, insurance ads mostly kept to the same formula: There would be depictions of happy families with a voiceover providing assurance that everything will be all right – provided viewers choose the right coverage. Flash frames of various risks such as fire, floods, and so on, were also displayed, warning viewers about what would happen to them without insurance.

All that changed, however, when GEICO’s “gecko” made its debut in 1999. Conceived by the Martin Agency to promote the GEICO name and to help consumers properly pronounce the insurer’s name, it has become a beloved cultural icon.

“Insurance doesn’t make you happy very often, so we thought that the advertising should have a smile to it,” Martin Agency chief creative officer Joe Alexander told The New York Times.

Before GEICO collaborated with Martin Agency, it had a 2% market share and was only the eighth-largest auto insurer in the US. Today, GEICO is the second largest auto insurer, behind only State Farm, said Martin Agency chief communications officer Dean Jarrett.

This sparked a realization among insurance companies – that it was OK for them to have a little fun with their marketing.

“Geico (sic) came out and said that people don’t care that much about insurance; insurance is a burden category, so let’s lighten the burden,” said Britt Nolan, the chief creative officer at Leo Burnett USA and one of the creators of Allstate’s Mayhem character. “Let’s make it simple and cheap, and let’s make the brand feel likable and fun.”

“I think they showed everyone else that there was another instrument available to be played,” Nolan added. “And now all these other brands are trying to find their own unique voice in comedy.”

Marketing experts also believe that humor allows insurers to connect with younger people.

“‘Good neighbors.’ ‘We’re on your side.’ That’s how insurance companies used to communicate, but it was for an older consumer,” explained Alexander. “Today, we’re trying to reach a much younger, more cynical audience.”

The humor in advertising has to be handled with care, said Ogilvy & Mather executive creative director David Fowler, whose agency has worked with Nationwide.

“It’s a rich area with endless possibilities, and you have to be vigilant about going beyond the edge,” Fowler said. “The online world will quickly tell you where the edge is.”

Balancing an ad’s humorous content and its message is crucial, Fowler emphasized.

“We can’t forget that we sell, or else,” he told The New York Times. “That’s rule one. In Geico’s case, most of the ad is crazy, but at the end there’s the message: 15 minutes saves 15%.”

Property and casualty insurers tend to gravitate toward the funnier ads, some marketers observed.

“I think you have to divide the ads into categories, into property insurance and life insurance,” said chief creative officer Rachel Howald of ad agency Invisible Man. “When you’re talking about a stolen TV, that’s not do or die, so there’s more latitude to have fun with it. But when you’re talking about the fate of individuals, there’s a reticence on the part of clients and insurance companies to make light of it.”

“We use humor to forge a bond with our customers,” stated Progressive leader of marketing strategy Cat Kolodij. “But we never make light of a situation when there’s an accident. We’re very clear that the humor doesn’t extend to our customer service group or our claims department.”

“You can’t forget this is a serious product, and at the point of purchase you have to ground it in trust. The ad has to come back to earth at the moment of truth,” Fowler pointed out.

“Otherwise, you’re just goofy, and no-one wants to buy insurance from a goofball.”

Related stories:
It’s Allstate v GEICO in this state (and GEICO’s winning)
The element of insurance marketing you may have forgotten

Keep up with the latest news and events

Join our mailing list, it’s free!