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How Insurance Ads Became the Industry Standard

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This episode memo was brought to you by Primary Wave.

In 2021, the Luther Vandross estate partnered with Primary Wave, which acquired a stake in the late singer’s publishing, master recording income stream, and name and likeness rights.

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This month, the estate-authorized documentary on Vandross’ life, Never Too Much, will make its world premiere on January 21 at Sundance.

There are many ways to sell your music rights, but few can show you strong results. From Whitney Houston to James Brown to Luther Vandross, Primary Wave is the home of legends whose legacies live on.

Learn more about Primary Wave

This week’s episode and memo are also about advertising, specifically in insurance. The stodgy, unsexy, commoditized industry has become home to the most innovative and influential ad campaigns of the past 20 years.

We talk about the impact of State Farm’s memorable Chris Paul and Cliff Paul campaign with a friend of the pod, Dr. Marcus Collins, who worked on the campaign when he was at Translation.

You can listen to the episode here or read the highlights below.

how insurance became an advertising gold mine

Insurance ads have come a long, long way. In 1975, John Travolta starred in a 30-second TV spot for Mutual of New York. We were supposed to believe that the Welcome Back, Kotter star’s father passed away early and without life insurance. Therefore, Travolta could no longer pursue his dreams and had to work at a local deli instead.

This campaign pushed fear, uncertainty, and doubt to the max. It’s the type of ad we would expect from Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad. All it needed was the Grim Reaper lurking in the background.

Fast forward to today, it has been over twenty years since the GEICO gecko was first introduced. The insurance ad landscape has transformed. These commercials are funny, touching, and extravagant.

The shift happened because brand awareness and recollection matter more in insurance than in other industries. It’s a product category that is mandatory to buy, commoditized by nature, and there are a finite number of policies to sell in a given region.

Managing fear, uncertainty, and doubt are table stakes. Instead, these brands stand out with identifiable characters, catchy jingles, and memorable slogans. It’s Flo from ProgressiveLiberty Mutual’s LiMu Emu, “Nationwide is on your side,” Allstate’s Mayhem, and Dennis Haysbert (or as we called him on the episode, our boy from Waiting to Exhale). The list goes on.

Before the GEICO gecko, the insurance company was the eighth-largest auto insurance company in the U.S. In 2022, it was the second-largest. That’s the power of advertising.

Insurance ads have replaced beer ads as the most popular big-budget campaigns. According to the NY Post, in 2021 there were 15,560 beer ads on TV compared to 14,270 insurance ads. Even when Super Bowl commercials eventually become $10 million for a 30-second spot, the insurance companies will likely continue to pay.

You can listen to the episode here or read more highlights below.

the State Farm assist: Chris Paul and Cliff Paul

In 2011, State Farm hired ad agency Translation to help maximize the insurance company’s partnership with the NBA. The State Farm-NBA relationship had tons of potential but had operated like expensive wallpaper.

In the episode, Marcus spoke about how State Farm is helpful and necessary, much like an assist in basketball. It may not be the flashiest play but it’s critical. They focused on point guards and teamed up with the NBA’s top PG at the time, Chris Paul. This was the peak Lob City era for Chris and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Translation considered making Chris Paul an agent, but they decided to level it up with a rumor: Chris Paul was separated from birth from his twin brother, Cliff Paul, a fictional character who is an all-star insurance agent in Los Angeles who dishes out “assists” to State Farm policyholders.

Marcus compared the campaign to the marketing for The Blair Witch Project, the infamous 1999 horror movie that took off due to its underlying question: “Is this real or fake?” Which sparked endless discourse around the cult movie. It was a marketer’s dream.

Translation partnered with Deadspin and Complex to spread the Cliff Paul rumor. Cliff Paul became the topic of investigative Reddit posts. State Farm had the NBA All-Star game broadcast of LA Clippers games show Cliff Paul in the stadium watching his twin brother. Cliff Paul had NBA All-Star Game credentials. They had Chris Paul, Cliff Paul, and CP3’s friends were tweeting at each other about this.

Before long, Chris Paul had his own Nike Jordan Brand sneaker and was featured in the NBA 2K franchise. LA Clipper’s then-coach Doc Rivers accidentally referred to his star point guard as “Cliff Paul” in a post-game interview. Translation didn’t even engage Doc! That was all organic. The list of integrations is long and impressive.

The campaign was well executed and benefitted from earned media that can’t be bought. It was the perfect combination. State Farm was no longer just the sponsor. The insurance company had a “+1” to the party.

from Cliff Paul to Jake From State Farm

As great as Cliff Paul was, Marcus believes the campaign overstayed its welcome. Some of the more recent campaigns didn’t work as well.

That’s because the allure of Cliff Paul was that “Is this real or fake?” The allure was that it tested the consumer’s gap in knowledge. And once that gap was answered, it was hard to continue. That’s also why the movie sequel The Blair Witch Project 2 didn’t work as well.

Meanwhile, State Farm’s more recent character, Jake From State Farm, has continued to live on for countless commercials and ads. With Jake, there’s no big reveal. He operates more like a franchise.

In one 30-second spot had Jake, Patrick MahomesAaron RodgersPaul Rudd, and Drake from State Farm. That’s State Farm’s version of Avengers Assemble.

Listen to the rest of the episode for more on:

– “The state of State Farm” before the Cliff Paul campaign
– how LeBron James helped connect State Farm and Translation
– the ROI of NFL stadium naming rights

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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