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Duck Season

What the AFLAC duck can teach you about getting your message into the minds of prospects
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the January 2005 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

What's the magic formula for turning a relatively unknown company into a household name practically overnight? Here's how a couple of brazen advertising agency Houdinis pulled it off-and why the kooky result might make one of advertising's legends turn over in his grave.

Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO/chief creative officer, and Robin Koval, chief marketing officer/general manager, of The Kaplan Thaler Group (KTG) Ltd. in New York City are two of the brains behind the AFLAC duck campaign. They chronicled the making of the campaign-and their theories on advertising in general-in BANG! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World.

When AFLAC, a leading provider of voluntary insurance coverage marketed at the work site, came to them, it was a company little-known to the general public. The firm's chair and CEO told Thaler, "I don't care what you do, as long as you get people to know the name of this company."

That's all the women needed to hear. Their battle cry to their troops: Let's make a "big bang." Outside of astrophysics, that means a big explosion in the marketplace, the two write. It means being too disruptive to be ignored. They also assert that a big bang is illogical: "If we allow a little illogic into our thoughts . . . we can break through the prison of current convention."

So what did this mind-set spawn at KTG? That "AFLAC" sounds like "quack," and thus the only possible spokescreature for this staid, conservative insurance company was a duck. Today, the once-obscure company is a household name, and business is booming.

But would the AFLAC duck have passed muster with the late advertising icon David Ogilvy, co-founder of the world-famous ad agency Ogilvy & Mather?

Chances are, he would cringe-or at least be conflicted. This is the man who put Hathaway Shirts and Schweppes on the map with sophisticated flair, and made household names of Dove soap and Pepperidge Farm. It's hard to imagine him turning over the image-making of an insurance company to a slightly annoying waterfowl. In his seminal 1983 book, Ogilvy on Advertising, he asserted that characters can sell, "provided they are relevant to your product."

On the other hand, he also wrote: "If you want the viewer to pay attention to your commercial, show her something she has never seen before . . . Most commercials slide off the memory like water off a duck's back."

Aha! Even Ogilvy would probably agree there's one duck on TV (besides Donald) that's been hard to forget.

Jerry Fisher is a freelance advertising copywriter and author of Creating Successful Small Business Advertising.

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