Why are insurance ads everywhere? : Planet Money Years ago advertising was dominated by cars and beer. Today on the show, how a simple slogan and a talking gecko helped the insurance industry become one of the most dominant forces in advertising. Now, we're all living with the consequences. | Fill out our listener survey here

The Gecko Effect

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: Hey, PLANET MONEY listeners, it's annual survey time at NPR. Filling out this survey will help us understand you, our listeners, so we can make a better show. We do actually sit down and read and analyze all the responses. We especially want to hear from people who are new to PLANET MONEY. The survey is short, and it's anonymous. It's at npr.org/podcastsurvey, all one word. That's npr.org/podcastsurvey. Thank you so very much, and on to the show.




There was this recent real poll that we have become, like, a little obsessed with over here.


It was conducted by the Harris polling company along with Ad Age, as in the industry publication that reports on advertising. We called somebody up to talk about this.

ADRIANNE PASQUARELLI: My name is Adrianne Pasquarelli. I'm a senior reporter at Ad Age.

MALONE: Basically, Ad Age ran a popularity contest - a 1 through 9 ranking of insurance company mascots.

ARONCZYK: Who's No. 9?

PASQUARELLI: It was Jamie from Progressive.


PASQUARELLI: He's the sidekick to Flo. Yeah, he's a little bit - he can be irritating. I think that's his whole thing.


JIM CASHMAN: (As Jamie) Yes, I was the first to the meeting. (Singing) Jamie was first, Jamie is best, better than the rest.

MALONE: Yup, little bit irritating. Don't disagree there. But, you know, what was interesting to me about this list was that it hadn't really dawned on me just how many of the commercials I see are not just insurance commercials, but insurance commercials with mascots. And let us just, like, run through this list really quickly.

ARONCZYK: Okay. So eighth most popular on this list comes from Liberty Mutual.




ARONCZYK: There is an emu, and there's a guy named Doug. It's kind of like this buddy cop thing.

MALONE: Yeah, we got another bird mascot at No. 6...


DANIEL MCKEAGUE: (As Aflac Duck) Aflac.

MALONE: ...The Aflac Duck, of course.

ARONCZYK: No. 3 I think is my least favorite mascot - Mayhem from Allstate.



DEAN WINTERS: (As Mayhem) I'm your blind spot.


WINTERS: (As Mayhem) I'm a wild deer.


WINTERS: (As Mayhem) I'm a random windstorm.


WINTERS: (As Mayhem) I'm dryer lint.


MALONE: The character's name is Mayhem. He shows up in dangerous situations, causing mayhem - one of the many, many, many insurance mascots.

ARONCZYK: Why do you think there are so many of these insurance characters?

PASQUARELLI: Well, insurance isn't exactly the sexiest category. I mean, I think people don't want to think about life insurance, those topics. So I think insurers brought in these characters for consumers to kind of relate to brands and identify them over the competition.

ARONCZYK: And if you were looking for a culprit - one company, one mascot that started it all - Adrianne says look to the eye-licking, pantless (ph), seemingly British Geico lizard.


JAKE WOOD: (As the Geico Gecko) The thing is, everyone wants to save money on their car insurance.

PASQUARELLI: It turned out that the gecko was No. 1. Forty percent of respondents strongly like the lizard, while an additional 35% somewhat like him. So that was a 75% favorability rating.

MALONE: So favorability is, like - what is that quite like - I like that gecko? Yeah, I would have a drink with that gecko.

PASQUARELLI: I think what it's asking for is if - though they probably would have a drink with them - is if they don't mind when that ad comes on.

MALONE: Right.

PASQUARELLI: That they are like, yeah, it's enjoyable.


WOOD: (As the Geico Gecko) I'll tell you why - because people trust advertising icons.


ARONCZYK: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone. And all of these insurance mascots are, kind of ironically, the smiling faces on the front line of one of the most cutthroat marketing battles of the last 20 years.

ARONCZYK: It is a battle that shows us the wild, wild world of selling insurance, an expensive product that is zero fun to buy.

MALONE: Today on the show, the story of why one insurance company with a hard-to-pronounce name is arguably to blame - or credit - for this current flood of insurance mascots.


ARONCZYK: Insurance, like, as an industry product is incredibly weird when you think about it.

MALONE: So for starters, it has this, like, mandatory quality to it. Everyone who owns a car or has a mortgage needs insurance. And so there's this, like, fixed number of customers, and they all already have your product. So if you're a car insurance company, you're not just going to go find new untapped markets. The pie only grows when the population grows.

ARONCZYK: So what insurance companies are battling for is a larger slice of this relatively slow-growing pie. So what they need to do is steal from another company's slice - you know, take some of their customers.

MALONE: But how to do that? It's not like insurance companies could just go give free samples ******

MALONE: ****** at Costco or display their insurance on a mannequin. No. Insurance companies rely on advertising.

ARONCZYK: This has been true for a long time, though the messaging has not always been the same. Let me give you, like, a little bit of a taste of what insurance commercials sounded like back in the 1970s and '80s.

MALONE: They were sometimes - how do we say? - boring.


JIM GOLDEN: I've been with State Farm here in Sioux City for about 18 years now. And I think I know what people expect of a life insurance man. If I were out, you know, shopping for life insurance for myself, I think...


ARONCZYK: So boring. It's like my insurance dad has sat me down for a heart-to-heart about insurance.

MALONE: But it is important to remember that insurance is a complicated, not very fun product that you probably either think you should have or are required to have. We've read that some people in advertising refer to it as a burden category because it is a burden to buy. It is a burden to sell it. And so you can understand why another tack in this era was to run ads that just scared the living crap out of us.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Allstate life insurance says, if you die, young man, we can help you make certain that little boy of yours won't go under. When it comes to guarding your family, young man, you're in good hands with Allstate.

MALONE: (Laughter) Oh, my God.

ARONCZYK: Almost sounds like a threat.

MALONE: It's terrifying. So this is kind of the way insurance advertising was in the '70s, '80s. You can imagine this sort of equilibrium, a handful of companies fighting over that same pie, using the same kind of advertising, which was reflective of the seriousness of the product they were selling.

TED WARD: All the car insurance work back then was trying to sort of scare you into having enough insurance - like, safety and security, and that was everybody's pitch back then.

MALONE: Ted Ward was in charge of advertising at an insurance company when all of these kinds of ads were going out there - a little insurance company you may have heard of - the Government Employees Insurance Company - GEICO. That is what GEICO stands for.

ARONCZYK: Yeah, because GEICO was originally founded to sell insurance policies to government employees. They were a private company. They just had this niche strategy. But over the years, they expanded who they sold policies to.

MALONE: And for our purposes, things get interesting at GEICO in the early 1990s. They're selling car insurance. They've been growing, but not as fast as they want. There's been a little turnover - CEO out, CEO in situation - and they only have, like, 2% of that insurance pie.

WARD: They reached a point, GEICO reached a point where they wanted to grow. And to do that, they felt marketing was necessary, and I kind of agreed with them at the time.

ARONCZYK: GEICO wants to go big on their ads. And Ted, he'd heard about this smallish ad company called the Martin Agency. They were famous for one of the most iconic ad campaigns of the past 50 years - Virginia is for lovers.

MALONE: I mean, classic tagline. And this is key - like, a good tagline can be the basis for everything - your brand, the ads that you'll run for your brand, your company itself. And GEICO knew that it needed one of those great taglines.

ARONCZYK: Ted calls up that Virginia is for lovers agency. Matt Williams left it a few years ago, but in 1993, that is where he was working.

MATT WILLIAMS: GEICO gives us a call and says, we want you to compete for our ad account. So we say, OK, well, we'll give it a shot.

MALONE: Then Ted, from GEICO, he explains to this new ad agency, now, one thing that is maybe helpful is that GEICO is different from traditional insurance companies. And you can see that by how fast they could get price quotes to people.

WARD: We knew we could deliver most of the quotes that we give people in, like, eight minutes.

MALONE: Eight minutes is fast because back in the '90s, most other insurance companies would have a new customer sit down in a room with an agent because insurance is complicated and serious and customers need their hands held.

ARONCZYK: But GEICO's model was more like, eh, just call our 1-800 number. We'll give you a price quote. Won't take more than eight minutes.

MALONE: So GEICO's new ad agency is like, maybe we can use that. Like, that seems like an advantage. So they do some research and ask customers, how long do you think it should take to talk to somebody about insurance?

WARD: Research pointed to the fact that 10 minutes wasn't considered long enough to discuss a serious topic like car insurance, but 15 minutes was. The scary thing is 20 minutes was considered way too long.

MALONE: OK, OK, fine line there, but great. Fifteen minutes - like, that could be useful for a new tagline. Anything else they could use for this tagline?

ARONCZYK: Ted claims that because the business model has lower overhead, GEICO's data shows that customers that switch to GEICO save an average of 18%.

MALONE: Ad agency is like, OK, great. Although 18% is kind of a weird number, 20% would be a lie.

WARD: They found that 15% was a very believable number. And it was better than saying $200 or $500 because people apply the percentage to whatever their basis is, you know, so it's - the percentage actually was appealing.

MALONE: Fifteen percent - appealing percentage - and it was a winner. In 1993, the Martin Agency and GEICO are in business with that critical tagline. I suspect many of us have heard it before.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: GEICO - 15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance.

MALONE: Boom - Virginia is for lovers, but for insurance - done.

ARONCZYK: Now they have got their tagline. But of course, that is not enough. Matt the ad guy and Ted the GEICO guy need to start making some TV ads.

MALONE: But here's the strange thing about car insurance. Like, yes, prices can vary depending on how insurance companies assess risk, ******

MALONE: ******* etc., etc.

ARONCZYK: Like, GEICO won't necessarily be cheaper for you. Another strange thing is that regulations on car insurance are very strict.

MALONE: And so in the end, what actually gets sold isn't all that different from one company to the next. Like, car insurance is a little bit like a commodity like bananas or salt or silver.

ARONCZYK: And that's why insurance company advertising tends to be less about the product and more about brand recognition. An insurance company wants to be the first brand that comes to mind when a customer is looking to buy insurance.

MALONE: So GEICO's new ad agency, their goal is to make GEICO a household name, which maybe was going to be a little harder than they thought. This was a specific issue that came up in a big way during a focus group in the late 1990s. The focus group was held in Phoenix, a brand-new market for GEICO.

WILLIAMS: So we're sitting behind the glass and these focus groups in Phoenix, and the people there are having all kinds of trouble pronouncing the name of the company. And they're saying, gee-ico (ph), geeko (ph), you know? Why would I entrust my car insurance to a company whose name I can't even pronounce?


WILLIAMS: So at the end of the focus group, we do what everybody does at the end of the focus group, which is you retire to the hotel bar.

ARONCZYK: A few people from the ad agency are sitting around the bar with their client, Ted from GEICO, and they're trying to solve this pronunciation problem. And one of the ad guys, Ken Spira (ph), has this idea, but it hasn't been run by the account team yet for approval. He's not really supposed to show it to the client yet. But he thinks it's pretty good?

WILLIAMS: And the four of us are sitting around the bar thinking about, what are we going to do with the fact that nobody can pronounce this company's name? And we're talking, and Ken is an artist by training, and he's sitting there quietly, literally drawing on a napkin. And he draws a picture of a lizard with a speech bubble coming out of his mouth that says, I'm a gecko. Don't call me GEICO. And he slides it across the table to Ted and just as a joke, says, hey, Ted, we should do this.

MALONE: And Ted looked at this lizard on this cocktail napkin.

WARD: And I said, you know, that's - why don't you work on that? And sure enough, he comes back about a month later with a commercial - this 15-second commercial - where it's a gecko holding a press conference.



KELSEY GRAMMER: This is my final plea. I am a gecko - not to be confused with GEICO, which could save you hundreds on car insurance. So stop calling me.


MALONE: And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the sound of a gecko licking its own eyeball, I assume, and also, is how the gecko is born. Hatched? Is hatched right?

ARONCZYK: Yes, hatched. By the way, the other reason that it is an animated gecko is that there was an actors' strike that year, so it was easier to make new ads with animated lizards than to work with humans.

MALONE: Now, I 100% remember this ad. It was so weird. It seemed out of the blue. I remember the computer animation was, like, a little rough. And I also remember not at all knowing what GEICO actually did, but certainly, I suddenly knew about GEICO.

WARD: And it was cute. I mean, and we - everybody loved it, and we ran it. And it - we got good response, but it probably would have died a cruel and hideous death right then and there 'cause it wasn't a campaign. It was a one-off.

MALONE: However, what seems to have kept the gecko alive was not some fancy poll or focus group, says Ted. It was a far, far more powerful data point.

WARD: The CEO's wife loved it. (Laughter) Yeah, I saw her at a dinner, and she says, oh, that gecko, that's so cute. That (laughter) - I went back to the agency and said, we're doing more of these (laughter).


ARONCZYK: After the break - everybody wants their own gecko, including us.

MALONE: We learn the ad agency playbook so that we can make our own kooky PLANET MONEY mascot.


ARONCZYK: After the success of the GEICO Gecko, of course, all the other insurance companies are like, do we need a gecko? We kind of want a gecko. What if we had our own gecko?

MALONE: And everybody wanting a gecko is part of the story of why today we are totally flooded in mascots. But it is a slightly more complicated story than just that because of a very famous and a very famously rich person, Warren Buffett.

ARONCZYK: OK, so to back up just a little bit, Warren Buffett had been a GEICO shareholder for a very long time, like, since the early 1950s. But then in the 1990s, around the time that GEICO hired that new ad agency, Buffett was like, I think I'm going to buy the whole company.

MALONE: And he does. Ted Ward, GEICO's VP of Marketing, was there when this happened, and he remembers Buffett would actually show up in person at the office.

WARD: He said, you know, everything's going great at this company. We're making money. Company's - but we'd like to grow faster. So let me say this, don't let money stand in your way. It's the one thing I have.

MALONE: So you got all this Buffett money ******

MALONE: **** flooding in. Some of that money goes to help develop and launch the famous gecko advertisement, which is successful. And then Buffett is like, OK, here's even more money. Spend more of my money on advertising.

WARD: And I'm a marketing guy, and I'm sitting there as - our budget went from about 35 or $40 million one year. And I looked around - two years later, it was 280 million.

ARONCZYK: Was that kind of shocking, to spend that much money on advertising for insurance?

WARD: (Laughter) Yes, it was.

ARONCZYK: In just a few years, Ted's advertising budget was, like, seven times bigger than it was before.

MALONE: So by the early 2000s, Ted has this gigantic budget, which was actually kind of an interesting problem given the way advertising has traditionally worked.

ARONCZYK: The classic way of approaching advertising is to find the company's USP, unique selling proposition, for that brand, and then you repeat it over and over and over again so much so that it's like a hot iron brand searing the customer's brain with that brand forever.

MALONE: Now, GEICO now had so much ad money that it could put ads on the TV and on the radio and on the internet and on blimps and in the sky which - yes, they hired GEICO Skytypers, is what they called them. But if Matt and his ad agency just painted the world with their new beloved gecko, Matt knew that the world would eventually suffer from gecko fatigue.

WILLIAMS: And that's always been one of the big challenges for advertisers like GEICO, is that you can spend so much money that people get - they get tired of it, and they get angry about it. And they just don't want to see it anymore.

MALONE: And I think if you want to pick one moment where the insurance mascot dam breaks, it is here because GEICO has more ad money than it knows what to do with. It wants to avoid gecko fatigue. And so the solution GEICO comes up with is to start spinning off even more mascots.

ARONCZYK: So in 2004, we get the GEICO Caveman. Then a few years later comes Kash, which is a talking stack of money with these googly eyes, then Maxwell the Pig, and then a camel that, honestly, I might have blocked out.

WILLIAMS: The Hump Day Camel?

ARONCZYK: I don't remember the Hump Day Camel.

WILLIAMS: Oh, my God. We put this camel in a sea of cubes, and he's walking around annoying everybody, asking them what day it is. What day is it? What day is it?

ARONCZYK: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: It's hump day. Hump day.




ARONCZYK: Matt says that there was a school where the teachers actually made a rule that on Wednesdays, the kids could not walk around saying, hump day, hump day, hump day because it was making the teachers crazy.

MALONE: That is how you know your ad campaign is working. But more broadly, between 1999 and today, GEICO has gone from the seventh largest auto insurance company to the second largest. And their slice of that very, very competitive pie grew from 2% to 14%.

ARONCZYK: And according to Ad Age, 98% of people recognize the GEICO Gecko - definitely wonder who that 2% is. And this is why they now teach the GEICO and the Gecko in business school and why there are entire chapters of marketing textbooks with themes like GEICO. What a great example.

MALONE: Yeah, because GEICO has, like, kind of won in a big way. And one of the ways you can tell this is because every other insurance company has created their own mascot over the last 20 years.

ARONCZYK: Progressive launches Flo.


STEPHANIE COURTNEY: Welcome to progressive.com. Did you find...

ARONCZYK: Then Farmers Insurance creates Professor Burke.


J K SIMMONS: Farmers' auto multipolicy discount...

MALONE: Then Mayhem, of course.


WINTERS: Protect them from mayhem like me.

MALONE: Then Jake from State Farm.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Jake from State Farm...

ARONCZYK: LiMu Emu in there.



MALONE: And, like, just throw all of GEICO's, like, five mascots in here.


MALONE: And now, whether we like it or not, we all live in this bizarro MCU - mascot cinematic universe or - whatever. It is a new equilibrium, for sure, where we're - just like in the '70s and '80s, we have this handful of insurance companies all adopting roughly the same advertising approach. Back then, it was boring, serious, scary ads. Today, it is these weird, funny mascots.

ARONCZYK: Except now, the insurance companies are also in a spending arms race. At the beginning of this story, back in the 1990s, GEICO's ad budget was, like, $40 million. And now, it is more than $1.5 billion.

MALONE: One and a half billion dollars is a number that I will repeat before I disclose that I...

ARONCZYK: (Laughter).

MALONE: ...Am a GEICO auto insurance customer. And that advertising number makes me a little (vocalizing) because, you know, at least some of that ad money is coming from premiums. And as much as I love that darn gecko, I would much rather have a lower car insurance premium than watch more gecko commercials - not that this is just a GEICO problem.

ARONCZYK: No. Our friends at Ad Age have also studied this. Insurance companies now spend more on advertising than almost any other brands. Three of the top six ad spenders are insurance companies - GEICO, Progressive and State Farm.

WILLIAMS: I think it's kind of turned into a bit of a kind of prisoner's dilemma for those marketers, which is that they've all started spending lots of money, so they all have to follow suit. And if they want to stay competitive, they have to keep up with the spend that others in the category are doing. And it's just gotten - it's gotten dominant.

MALONE: Mascots - net good, net bad - costing me, Kenny Malone, more money on my car insurance. Maybe - but also, Amanda...


MALONE: It still does seem pretty fun to have a mascot.

ARONCZYK: I want a mascot.

MALONE: We ****

MALONE: ****** did want our own mascot at PLANET MONEY.

ARONCZYK: So we figured while we have Matt Williams, this very successful ad exec, on the line, we decided we should pick his brain. What else should we know about these famous mascots?

WILLIAMS: Every character that, you know, becomes sort of an iconic advertising character is one that people have thought really deeply about. There are people who have thought really deeply about the Pillsbury Doughboy and about the GEICO Gecko and...


WILLIAMS: ...What's their personality? What are they like? Where are they in the world? You know, what kind of person are they? You know? And when they're thoughtful and they're put together in the right way, these kind of characters can have a really powerful place in the world.

MALONE: Matt tells us that all the characters we love - Mr. Peanut, the Energizer Bunny, Tony the Tiger - they all have their own, like, rulebook that says who that character is.

ARONCZYK: Sometimes it is an actual book. It's called a brand book. And it's got everything from font choice to color palette to what the mascot will and won't say.

MALONE: Matt gave us a little peek inside the brand book for the GEICO Gecko to just find out a little bit who the gecko is.

WILLIAMS: He's approachable, he's fun, he's friendly. He's not, you know, he's not snarky and sarcastic. He's aware that he's a gecko, you know. And that's a strange situation, right?

ARONCZYK: (Laughter) Oh, yes.

WILLIAMS: But part of his charm is that he knows he's a gecko.


WILLIAMS: So yeah, he's all those things.

MALONE: OK, OK, so self-aware - I like that - not sarcastic. We - maybe we'll steal that for ours.

ARONCZYK: So then we discussed, what could we use as our mascot? And we landed on the PLANET MONEY Squirrel.

MALONE: Yeah, this seemed pretty obvious. This is a squirrel holding a martini glass that we put onto our PLANET MONEY T-shirt. It was a reference to the economist John Maynard Keynes, who talked about how people are supposed to behave rationally, but we have these animal spirits that sometimes take over and show up in the economy. Squirrel, animal, martini glass, spirit - you know, you get it.

ARONCZYK: And Matt was like, well, this could work, but you need to develop that rulebook. Who is the squirrel?

WILLIAMS: So is he John Maynard Keynes, like, reincarnated as a squirrel?

MALONE: OK, that's one side, right, OK.

WILLIAMS: Is he a professorial kind of type? Is...

MALONE: Got it.

WILLIAMS: ...He a brash sort of, you know, provocative, tell it like it is kind of guy?

MALONE: Like a crypto bro or something.

WILLIAMS: Exactly. So I think, Kenny, there's some interesting tension there, which is that there are some attributes I associate with squirrels that this squirrel...

MALONE: Which is squirrelly, I assume you mean.

WILLIAMS: Skittish, unfocused, not really deep thinker - how do I put this squirrel in a position that accentuates the difference between how they actually are and what you expect them to be?

MALONE: OK, so let's run this down, Amanda - a squirrel that knows it's a squirrel.

ARONCZYK: OK, not sarcastic, surprisingly smart, yet still squirrelly.

MALONE: Yes, yes, a walking contradiction. And perhaps, perhaps we encounter this squirrel in an unexpected place.


MALONE: We see the fancy Plaza Hotel. We zoom in on the bar, where a very fancy tuxedoed gentlemen is asking advice? Advice from whom? I can't quite see. They must be very, very small.


ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: (As the man in the bar) But aren't you worried about a recession?

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: (As the PLANET MONEY Squirrel) Yeah, maybe. But we have seen the Fed engineer soft landings before. But hey, I'm just a squirrel holding a martini. I've got all my acorns buried for the winter.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: (As the man in the bar) Well, for a squirrel, you seem to know a lot about the economy. Like, what's your secret?

WOODS: (As the PLANET MONEY Squirrel) Yeah, you know, I read discarded newspapers. I talk to people. Oh, and of course, I listen to PLANET MONEY, this podcast that makes the economy make sense for anybody - even a squirrel with a martini.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: PLANET MONEY - 20 minutes can make you 20% more informed about the economic world.


WILLIAMS: And then you can start pushing this squirrel into all kinds of different places.


WILLIAMS: T-shirts - this squirrel should have...

MALONE: Well, the squirrel is, if nothing else, on a T-shirt currently. That I will say.

WILLIAMS: Exactly. So T-shirts is a bad example. Let's go somewhere else. This squirrel should be a guest on "Jimmy Kimmel."

MALONE: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: This squirrel should have their own podcast.

ARONCZYK: (Laughter).


MALONE: Oh, oh, Amanda, what's that here in our brand book? Our - looks like our squirrel really, really, really wants you listeners to fill out our PLANET MONEY survey. We really do want to hear from you, especially people who just started listening to the show or people who have not filled out this survey before. You can find that survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey, all one word.

ARONCZYK: Today's show was produced by Emma Peaslee with help from Sam Yellowhorse Kesler, James Sneed and Greg Morton. It was engineered by Gilly Moon and edited by Jess Jiang. PLANET MONEY's executive producer is Alex Goldmark. Special thanks to my sister, Melissa Aronczyk, for suggesting we make this episode. I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


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