Business Columns & Blogs

It’s college football season and competition is fierce ... among insurance companies

For college-football fans — including this one — a new season of watching a lot of games on TV means watching a lot of commercials.

If you watch enough games and commercials, you start picking up on some trends and patterns, such as the predominant categories of businesses buying air time to promote their products and services.

Befitting the audience and setting, the usual suspects are there — cars, beer, fast food … and insurance?

That’s not a category that immediately comes to mind to sell to an audience of sports fans (unless they figure that if you drive the way some car companies depict their products being used, you’re going to need insurance, and soon).

But there’s no question that insurance figures prominently on the menu of advertisers. An informal jotting down of sponsors in an afternoon of viewing produces this list of insurance companies: Allstate, Geico, Progressive, State Farm, Nationwide, USAA, Farmers, Pacific Life and Aflac. There might have been others.

The promotions extend well beyond the ads. Most fans have spotted the Allstate logo on the nets behind the goal posts that get hoisted every time there’s a field-goal or extra-point attempt.

It’s just one category and a limited number of product lines within that category — auto, home, life. Aflac seems to be the only one emphasizing supplemental health insurance, and there’s almost no marketing of basic health insurance.

Within that single category there are multiple approaches and styles to selling insurance. Some emphasize price and convenience. Others promote service (and warnings against making price the most important factor in choosing an insurer).

For a serious subject — or maybe it’s because of its seriousness — insurance companies use a lot of humor in ads. Geico is most legendary at that, with multiple campaigns running at the same time (its emphasis has been on car insurance, but recently it’s been promoting renters’ insurance). Allstate has its Mayhem campaign (but also a serious ad, with Dennis Haysbert bizarrely sitting in an armchair in the middle of a busy street). Farmers has been using Academy Award winning actor J.K. Simmons, lately in combination with the Muppets.

The approach can be a misfire. Progressive has introduced a new, rude and off-putting male character in its recent ads. State Farm’s dueling-agents series featuring quarterback Aaron Rodgers leads to questions about why the company would think anyone would be enticed to buy insurance by those ads.

But then, that’s the larger question insurance companies, and so many other businesses, face these days. How do you reach consumers to sell a product that isn’t glamorous or exciting, in a media landscape that has been so dramatically rearranged, or sell it to an audience whose financial situation, priorities, experiences and outlook are so different from those of their parents and grandparents.

Life insurance is a prime example of the changes.

Purchasing a policy used to be one of the significant mileposts on the road to responsible adulthood. In high school you were taught such now-archaic skills as how to write and endorse a check, how to read a newspaper stock table (for that matter, how to read a newspaper) and how to buy insurance. The board game of Life — the one in which you move little plastic cars into which you inserted plastic pegs to represent the addition of spouse and kids — had the purchase of life insurance as one of the important events on the journey. It was something you were expected to own.

A story that appeared last year on sums up the modern challenge for the industry. Citing a survey that 75 percent of millennial parents didn’t have such policies, the story noted that “young American adult households are indifferent to the idea of having life insurance.”

Some types of insurance have the advantage of regulatory mandate to compel sales — auto insurance is a requirement. So is homeowners insurance, at least if you expect to get a mortgage.

Even in those categories, the competition is ferocious and the market is highly fragmented. The list of property and casualty insurers doing business in this state, as compiled by the Office of the Insurance Commissioner’s annual report, goes on for pages and numbers in the hundreds. State Farm, which appears to have the largest share of that market, is a little over 10 percent.

How then to stand out from the crowd, grab the attention and dollars of consumers facing huge demands on both, and convince them they need your product and company? No one knows for certain, which is why they’ll try anything and everything. Is there any advertising vehicle or venue that Geico hasn’t appeared on or in? (Interestingly, two locally based companies with significant shares of the property and casualty market in this state — Pemco and Safeco — weren’t a presence in a recent college-football viewing sample).

Until someone latches onto the right formula, the perfect balance, for landing those customers, sports fans can expect to see their screens filled not only with football players but pitches from actors (in and out of character), present and former gridiron heroes, geckos and ducks.

■ We haven’t played Readers Rate the Ads in a few years, mostly due to declining audience participation — could it be that with so many people watching TV through commercial-free streaming services they’re not seeing enough ads to make an impression? Could it be that advertising generally isn’t distinctive enough — good or bad — for consumers generally to notice?

But since we’ve been discussing companies like Geico that are not only prolific advertisers but which have come up with some entertaining ads, we’ll try this again.

What recent ads have caught your eye or ear — for good or ill — recently? Do ads in general provide useful information or entertainment value — or neither? Send along your thoughts to the email address below, and we’ll kick around the topic in a future column.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at
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