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Sitcom - or car insurance ad?

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CarInsurance.com

World's Greatest Spokesperson in the World

It used to take only a fatherly voice and a reassuring slogan to sell you car insurance.

Now, it's more often a cranky Neanderthal or a funky shopgirl. Even Allstate -- the Good Hands People -- has gone to the dark (and funny) side with "Mayhem," using black comedy to nail down its message: Get an auto insurance quote now or face certain disaster.

These spokespeople have quirks. And they have fan clubs. But do they sell insurance?

Yes. GEICO, most in the advertising industry believe, has morphed its image from an old-school carrier known mostly to the military and more careful drivers to a fresher company with wider name recognition across every demographic.

"Before the 'Caveman' and that little green lizard, there were ads that talked about 'a piece of the rock' or 'a good neighbor,' more traditional approaches with death and destruction overtones and protecting yourself from them,'' says Ted Ward, the vice president of GEICO marketing and credited as a force behind the company's "Caveman" and "Gecko" characters.

The strategy has been so successful that the fusty world of insurance advertising hasn't been the same since "Caveman" whined his first lines in 2004. (See "Who's your favorite insurance spokesperson?")

"We are the fastest-growing company [in the sector] the past three years,'' Ward says."We are now third, only behind Allstate and State Farm, and we attribute it to these campaigns."

(According to the Insurance Information Institute, GEICO has 8.2% of the market share, with State Farm at 18.6% and Allstate with 10.5%. Progressive is fourth, at 7.5%, followed by Farmers with 6.4% and Nationwide at 4.5 %.)

"Early on, before the others, we decided to carve out a niche, to use humor to get away from the stodgy and, more important, differentiate ourselves from the others. Well, we did that. It's been a success." (Here are a few Caveman commercials and Gecko TV spots.)

The insurance mascot hall of fame

Although GEICO was the first out of the gate, it soon faced "Flo."

Progressive's tilted salesgirl with "Austin Powers" hair is at least as well-known as the Caveman or Gecko. She has policy-pushing help at Progressive with a more recent creation, referred to only as "The Messenger," a '70s leftover who calmly advises wary strangers to save money with the company.

Jeff Charney, Progressive's chief marketing officer, says Flo's popularity has steadily grown since she appeared in 2008. Much of the reason, he explains, is because of her Web quotient; More than 2.5 million people have visited Flo's Facebook site the past three years, according to Charney. (Here are a few Flo ads.)

"This is the new digital generation," Charney says. "They play online, they engage online and, when you have a relevant brand like ours, they also show tremendous brand loyalty online. [Flo's success] demonstrates just how strong the power of a social network like Progressive's can be."

Then there's Nationwide's "The World's Greatest Spokesperson in the World," a shill who supposedly amuses through smarminess. As played by actor Bob Wiltfong, this mascot all but leans over and massages Nationwide's clients as he coos about great coverage.

But the most intriguing and eccentric of all has to be Allstate's "Mayhem." The ads play with viewers' perceptions by placing Mayhem (actor Dean Winters, radiating pain) in situations both familiar and bizarre. Among other incarnations, he's been 16-year old girl who crashes while texting; a faulty satellite dish that falls on a car; and a pretty jogger who distracts a driver and causes an accident. (Check out some Mayhem spots.)

All are objects of affection (and more than a little ridicule) online, with forums and chat rooms dedicated to analyzing the commercials and the icons' many quirks. Although most of the mascots first appeared on television, they seem to live eternally on the Internet.

It's an Internet world, after all

We are witnessing an epic spending battle between insurers, sure, topping $1.5 billion last year. But it's also a battle for the soul of the industry, if you believe it has one.

Companies like Progressive and GEICO encourage customers to get auto insurance quotes and policies at their websites, circumventing traditional agents in most cases. In 2010, J.D. Power & Associates points out, about 48% of Gen Y shoppers looked for insurance quotes online, compared with 28% of baby boomers.

The bigger players have a more traditional agent model, which is why "Mayhem" always reminds his viewers that their "cut rate insurance" might not cover the kind of havoc he's wreaking.

If you need a reminder of the stakes, consider this: Spending on auto insurance TV advertising rose nearly a third in 2010. Try to remember the last hour of television you watched when you didn't see at least one of these high-concept commercials.

Are you a consumer, or a fan?

Mayhem's ads routinely generate many thousands of viewers on YouTube and provoke wide dialogue, from saluting Allstate for innovation to just riffing on the character. One poster asks: "Who do you think would win a cage match. Chuck Norris or Mayhem????" Another adds: "These commercials are great. I laugh every time...and that is very rare for commercials and television in general now-a-days. I applaud you Allstate."

An impressive following, but Flo (played by veteran comic Stephanie Courtney) is the Internet queen. Besides her Facebook fans that comment on everything from her goofy 'do to her peculiar body language, the commercials inspire both purrs and scratches on YouTube.

Of course, Internet infatuation is fleeting. For every fan -- "I wish Flo was my wife," pants one poster - another is ready for the next big thing: "I've had enough of Flo's pasty white face, creepy red lips, 60's hairdo and corny jokes. Please stop doing her annoying commercials during my favorite sporting events."

Given the Web-centric nature and dry goofiness of these mascots, it's easy to assume that younger consumers are the primary target. But Ward disputes that, saying the original goal was only to set GEICO apart.

"We weren't driven by age or demographics," he says. "We were looking for savvy people willing to do business in a newer more lively way. We haven't lost older clients [and] having young people interested is a bonus."

Holding that balance is always key to effective advertising, and Ward says GEICO is currently building a new campaign that it hopes will do just that. He'll only say that "easier ways to save" is the working slogan.

"Keep your eyes open for a guinea pig," he laughs. "That's all I can tell you."

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