The Little Idea: Aflac Duck As Idiot Savant

At Cannes this year there was a lot of big talk about big ideas – the need for grand branding concepts that could both etch their way into public consciousness but also communicate effectively across a fragmented new mediascape.

All brands want to be admired for contributing to our lives, the better angels of our humanity, world peace. Yeah, everyone wants to teach the world to sing.

But sometimes a little idea has a better chance of registering with consumers over the long haul if its cleverness is iterated modestly but consistently, even mercilessly.   

Enter (waddling) the Aflac Duck. Irritatingly ubiquitous? Yes. Typically more silly than funny and eminently forgettable? Yup. But the simple use of comic branding and identifying a company and its product lightheartedly with the intrinsically foppish duck has been relentless.

Why a duck? As Chico Marx asked in the Marx Brothers’ classic “Cocoanuts”.

It trades on that basic insight some marketer must have had years ago: the brand sounds like a quack. Run with it boys. And run the damned idea into the ground until every blessed soul in America is familiar with an otherwise obscure personal insurance product. Mission accomplished. Sometimes frequency trumps creative cleverness. It works on Henny Youngman’s classic comic principal: just keep firing off the one liners through the audience groans. There is bound to be something in there someone will grin at least.

Take my duck…please.

The latest run of duckvertising from Aflac targets a specific brand promise of quick claim resolution. But the series highlights the competence of the brand by contrasting it with the duck’s ineptitude in all other endeavors. A duck striking classic Yoga poses and trying to be in repose generally is a set up for light comedy. It all seems to be a slightly tortured road to underscore the brand's point about quick claim resolution. And perhaps the tactic involves forcing the viewer to make some sense of the online slapstick and engage more deeply in order to make the tiny logical hop to the brand message.

The duck mascot achieved its primary purpose years ago. It took one of our least favorite business segments, insurance, and made it feel inviting or at least a lot more harmless than an evening with an insurance salesman. Mission accomplished. Fortune magazine has consistently recognized Aflac as one of the country’s most admired companies. Now let’s have some fun with the duck.

What interests me about the ad is its rapid fire gag structure, not unlike Henny Youngman. The spot has a brief set up and then becomes a series of two or three second rapid fire sight gags, none of which is as funny as the cumulative effect of tiny giggles ending in the duck snoozing from exhaustion on the Yoga mat.  

Other episodes in the campaign have our duck on the golf course (“AFLAC” quacked as obscenity in a sand trap) and involved in a DIY project (wings handling power tools).

Unlike the Geico gecko, the original branding concept for the mascot precludes him talking. All the better. At his best, the duck is a near-silent comedian trading on a string of sight gags. The structure resembles a cartoon short of the 1930s from the Fleischer Brothers Studio. In many ways the fight for our attention in the cluttered TV space invigorates old media formats. The simple silent and brief sight gag is consumable with a glance and while the TV viewer is engaged in ad pod conversations with a spouse or while half-glancing at the second screen in her hand. At his worst, the antics are predictable and too often lead to an “Aflac” utterance that seems anxious we will forget the brand.

No chance of that now.

What Aflac is missing is the opportunity to leverage the duck more effectively. In the very formats the TV spots are unconsciously using, Vine and Instagram. They work in small bits and glances that could be broken down easily into a string of mobile social media posts. Surprisingly, the makers of these spots haven’t cultivated either social media feed to this end. On Twitter they just slap the full spots into the feed.

And here is an occasion where newer forms of media could actually spark more creativity in legacy media. If the makers of the Aflac spot have Instagram/Vine redistribution in mind they might make the elements in the spots even funnier if they were built from the ground up as standalones. After all, the series plays into one of the dominant genres of the Internet – funny animals. How did Aflac not see this?  

My feeling is the Aflac duck has insinuated itself so deeply into our own consciousness that we as media consumers should have a more direct voice in his future direction. Make him funnier. There is great potential here being wasted on light comedy and TV spots with merciless frequency.

Take our duck, please.   

   

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