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10 things the insurance industry can learn from the Super Bowl XLIX ads

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If you didn’t catch Super Bowl XLIX last Sunday, you at least watched the ads, or have seen all the buzz on your social media platform of choice. This year’s Super Bowl topped out at more than 114.4 million viewers, which makes it the most watched broadcast in U.S. TV history, according to CNN Money

Which of this year’s ads made you laugh, cry, laugh-cry, cringe or feel inspired? Some ads were forgettable, some were terrible and some had true potential to shape our cultural climate. What can the financial and insurance industries learn from these wide-reaching and very expensive marketing spots? Here at, we had so many piercing questions that we contacted international branding expert Scott Deming to gather more intel on what these ads mean for marketers this year. 

1. Emotion drives conversation … and sales.

“This year, the ads were more emotional and socially conscious of what’s going on, a much different feel from the past. And that’s a good thing, because emotion helps brand building,” Deming said.

Right off the bat, he starting dissecting the controversial and sad Nationwide ad, “Make Safe Happen,” in which a kid narrates the things he’s not going to get to do because of an accident that killed him at a young age. “A lot of people are saying that Nationwide’s was a ‘Debbie Downer’ or ‘we are having a party at the Super Bowl, why do you have to put this (ad) in my conscience?’ The ad was about preventable accidents; they didn’t try to sell. This truly is to raise awareness. Did you know that every 14 days healthy kids are killed from furniture or TV tip overs? Nationwide took an opportunity to not try to sell a product or service, but to send a message and that’s very commendable,” Deming said.   

Deming speaks from experience; his granddaughter passed away two years ago after an accident with falling furniture, so this ad hit home. He said that it’s great that the ad is creating so much buzz around child safety and awareness.

Nationwide defended their ad in a statement Monday saying the ad was designed to start a conversation on how injuries around the home are the leading cause of childhood deaths in the U.S. (you can read the full statement here.)

Another ad that caught Deming’s attention, and that falls within the “feel good” category, was the Coca-Cola spot. It took all of the negativity and bullying that we often see in the Internet and news, and turned it into a positive. This messaging is precisely what the brand has been associated with for a long time: happiness, compassion and love.

2. Different angles make some ads stand out.

Unlike some of the plays during the game itself, the ads that aired during the Super Bowl went from the emotional to the cute to the ridiculous and funny. Deming mentioned the McDonald’s ad in which customers were asked to pay with a “random act of love” like calling one’s mom and telling her that you love her. “It was an effective and cute ad. Companies who are associating themselves with empathy and conscience are really associating themselves with something that is greater than themselves, greater than the brand,” he said.

Another very popular angle, especially in past Super Bowls, has been tickling the viewers’ funny bone. The Snickers spoof on The Brady Bunch featuring Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi was funny, mostly because Trejo and Buscemi scare the beejeezus out of some of us and they’ve made their careers out of playing the villain. Recasting them as Marcia and Jan Brady was a shock to viewers, both memorable and funny.

In the same way, Fiat’s ad with the little blue pill was “genius and the subtle terminology that they used was brilliant,” Deming assessed.

Another car ad that made the funny list was Dodge’s “Wisdom,” which featured people really into their Golden Years dishing out pearls of wisdom. It’s always funny to hear a great-grandma or grandpa say what they really feel … like stop complaining and live your life.

3. Ads must reward the audience to be effective.

While a funny ad might be remembered and even quoted for the next few weeks, is there truly a reward? “Television ads are an intrusion, but people are actually tuning in specifically to the Super Bowl ads. The ads have to draw you in and they have to have a payoff. In the past, Super Bowl ads were about being competitive, about companies topping each other, and not about the payoff for the audience,” said the branding expert.

What’s in it for the audience, for the customer, and will the ad really drive sales for the company? Is creating buzz of this magnitude worth the millions of dollars spent?  

One example of a weak ad, according to Deming, was the Doritos spot “When pigs fly.” He says that even though Doritos has made brilliant ads in the past (remember the one with the adult in the make-believe time machine?), this time around “When pigs fly” didn’t work because it was funny but it wasn’t memorable.

Doritos has been known for starting social media campaigns in an effort to engage their consumers and create buzz around a contest for the ad that will show during the Super Bowl. Deming, however, asks himself if that buzz is really worth all the effort and money behind these types of campaigns. “Does it sell more Doritos? I don’t know … but you really need to figure out what you want to do (as a brand or company),” he cautioned.

He also said that some of these companies can’t afford not to advertise during the Super Bowl because that might lead to negative feedback from consumers, who will ask themselves why there wasn’t an ad for X company. Deming attributes this to the fact that advertising in the Super Bowl is a status symbol of how well or how poorly a company might be doing.

4. Remember: Your audience’s attention (and retention) span is very short.

While there were a few Nationwide and Esurance spots, plus a TurboTax ad, the one that stood out the most was the Nationwide’s “Make Safe Happen.” Last week we reviewed Nationwide’s ad with Mindy Kaling, but that one “fell flat,” according to Deming. “It was funny and my daughter loves Mindy, but where’s the joke, what’s the zinger? By the end of the ad, you can’t remember why you’re there … it didn’t have a punch line at the end,” he said.

On the other hand, while the Esurance ads were funny, with the “sorta your guy” or “sorta your mom,” Deming says that the rewards were weak because you have to sit and think about the ad. Since the attention and retention span of the audience is very short, and there are so many ads coming at you, it’s better to have a really strong payoff for the audience so it’s not forgettable. That’s why socially conscious ads have a stronger reward because the audience becomes emotionally invested right away. At the end of the ad, you know why you’re still watching. In Deming’s opinion, this was the fatal flaw of the Esurance ads: They had a weak payoff at the end.

Meanwhile, TurboTax’s “Boston tea party” ad was funny and effective because “within a few seconds, you knew who it was for. They kept the conversation going, ‘like free, free?’”

5. Always take the audience seriously, even if your ad is funny.

While the insurance industry is a “pretty serious business,” there is room to be clever and funny, Deming says. Still, advertisers need to be careful and make sure to take their audiences seriously. He closed out our conversation with a few ideas for how the industry can bridge the educational gap of why you need life insurance, for example. Here’s how he recommends starting that conversation:

6. Let your clients know that it’s all about pre-planning for life’s events. “People don’t think about life insurance or they don’t believe they need it right now. You need to let people know that life is short.”

7. Instill the sense of urgency with credibility: Why do clients need this now? “It’s all about taking care of your family. Thinking about other people more than yourself. Being the hero and taking responsibility.”

8. Let the audience know that you’re going to be there for them. Stress this point as much as possible … and then actually be there for them.

9. Advertisers need to be careful not to offend people, especially now that people seem to be more sensitive. “If there’s even a small chance to offend someone, you shouldn’t run the ad,” he said.

Deming also used the well-known insurance company Progressive as an example of the right way to market the insurance industry: Progressive put something you can’t see or feel in a box, something that the customer can visualize. He explained that the visualization helps people “see” what they’re buying. 

10. Customer service and company culture. Insurance marketers should also think about their customer service, or the reality between the customer service presented in the ad and the customer service that clients experience first-hand. If there’s a disparity between the TV ad and the real thing, then you have a problem, and Deming recommends even pulling the ad because the customer experience will be severely damaged and so will your company’s image.

“You can’t have a sustainable and successful business just on ads alone. You need to train your staff and have a great company culture because people will buy into the company image in your ad,” Deming said, but the company culture has to come from within. He mentioned how Starbuck’s CEO Howard Schultz has a business philosophy of spending time and resources on training the staff to treat customers with compassion and sincerity. But this doesn’t only apply to people interacting face-to-face with clients. Everyone in the company needs to feel passionate and excited about working there because that will have a huge impact on your consumer-facing brand, according to Deming.

See also: 

Here’s why insurance agents are their own worst enemy

12 key insights for financial advisors and clients

Personal foul: The ethical fallout from Deflategate


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