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Before the introduction of the Geico gecko—the animated lizard introduced to signal to consumers how to pronounce the company’s name—most advertising for insurance companies was somber, responsible, and a little boring, rather like the products they sold. But the little green gecko also introduced the idea that serious products do not necessarily demand serious marketing, and nothing has been the same since.

Most insurance companies today rely on humor in their marketing communications, whether that involves a humanized version of “Mayhem” describing the things that can go wrong or Peyton Manning singing the Nationwide jingle in a variety of cute contexts. This trend reflects the massive success that Geico achieved through its marketing strategy; the company went from a tiny player in the U.S. insurance market, with less than 2 percent market share, to the second-largest car insurer in just a few years.

The use of humor likely has been so successful because it achieves two key objectives. First, it makes the cumbersome, somewhat grim, and not especially fun process of searching for and purchasing insurance a little less unpleasant. By letting people laugh about their need to protect themselves from the risks of terrible things happening, the insurance companies create a compelling emotional appeal.

Second, humor resonates well with younger consumers, who may tend to be more sophisticated or cynical than previous generations. Thus, traditional advertising that highlighted heartwarming stories of parents with insurance taking good care of their children (or sad narratives of what happens when they don’t) no longer compels buyers to initiate a new insurance policy.

But ultimately, that is the goal of all of these communications, whether they are heartwarming or humorous: to get people to buy insurance. Thus, every Geico advertisement ends with the same tagline that encourages consumers to spend 15 minutes to save 15 percent, regardless of the absurdity that might have preceded that call to action.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did Geico change the way insurance companies advertise?
  2. How do humorous advertisements help insurance companies sell to younger people?

Source:Joanne Kaufman, “It Began with a Gecko. Mayhem (and Flo and Peyton) Followed,” The New York Times, September 17, 2017