Video: An ‘Event’ that's just ducky

By Michael E. Ross Reporter
updated 12/8/2004 10:46:33 AM ET 2004-12-08T15:46:33

It's the latest marriage of business and entertainment: a Fortune 500 company borrowing a bit of Hollywood luster to help shine up its bottom line. Only this is product placement with a twist: selling a pledge — insurance, in this case — instead of a tangible product.

Television viewers who watch the network news and moviegoers who'll go to “Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events,” starring the malleable comedian Jim Carrey, are in for a symbiotic surprise. On TV they'll see the symbol for insurance giant Aflac promoting the company's services in a new ad spot that includes scenes from the film.

And starting Dec. 17, when the movie opens in U.S. theaters, film buffs will see Aflac's most recognizable symbol, the talking duck with a one-word vocabulary (“Aflac!”), actually appearing in the Paramount film directed by Brad Silberling (“Moonlight Mile,” “City of Angels”).

“The duck is actually in the film,” said Laura Kane, vice president of corporate communications for the insurance company. “He doesn't quack like a normal duck, but he doesn't say ‘Aflac,’ either.” Kane said the agreement between the companies called for Aflac to run promotional ads supporting the movie in exchange for the duck's movie debut.

This media cross-pollination is different from other product placements for anything from beer to hamburgers, soft drinks to cell phones. Aflac's product is peace of mind. “We think it’s the first time an insurance company's done product placement,” Kane said. “We don't have an actual product; we're selling a promise. We think this takes product placement to a whole new level.”

‘Unfortunate events’
The movie is based on the first three books in the Lemony Snicket series created by Daniel Handler — books that have sold more than 27 million copies around the world.

The film tells what happens after the wealthy parents of three children are killed in a fire — one of the “unfortunate events” alluded to in the title. They're sent to live with a distant relative, Count Olaf (Carrey) only to discover he's plotting to kill them and take their fortune.

And that phrase in the title —“unfortunate events” — is where Aflac comes in.

Based in Columbus, Ga., Aflac Insurance is one of the top U.S. providers of voluntary insurance sold in the workplace. It insures more than 40 million people worldwide from accidents and injuries, those unfortunate events that plague us all. It's the main subsidiary of Aflac Inc., an international holding company with total assets of more than $45 billion, and annual revenues of more than $11 billion, according to company statements on its Web site.

Cue the director
Aflac has long burnished its bottom line by insuring against “unfortunate events” in real life. But it was a darkly whimsical stretch of the imagination that led to a sober, cost-conscious insurance company tying up with fantasy-driven Hollywood.

Credit Silberling. “Ironically, the director contacted us and said, ‘how do you feel about this combination?’ We'd never really done product placement,” Kane said. “But we felt the sense of humor in the ad campaign and the film are similar. Brad felt the duck could provide comic relief. The duck is compassionate about people who suffer unfortunate events. We thought that, from a commercial standpoint, it’s a great tie-in.”

Tweaking the duck
It's the first step in an Aflac initiative to make some changes to how one of the most recognized advertising icons is presented to the public. Kane said the Aflac duck is the centerpiece of the company's new logo, unveiled on Dec. 2. And a series of new TV ads set to roll out on Dec. 31 will highlight the company's products and benefits more than before, now that recognizing the company's name and symbols is no longer a problem.

“Research has shown that our name recognition is around 90 percent, so there's no point in spending money for better name recognition,” Kane said. “We need to go on to the next phase — brand definition, so people know better what we stand for and what we do.”

To that end, the comedian Gilbert Gottfried will be featured in the new ad campaign at year's end, along with the company's storied duosyllabic duck.

Gottfried will not be wearing feathers.

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