If you don’t live under a rock, you probably recognize the car insurance mascots as much as you do an aunt or uncle.
Jake from State Farm, Flo from Progressive, the ubiquitous GEICO gecko — these characters introduce us to brands that would otherwise seem very similar to each other, offering standard personal auto insurance policies for liability coverage and beyond.
But before there was Flo, car insurance commercials weren’t so funny. They were serious cautionary tales, testimonials from satisfied customers, and the like. Insurance was considered a solemn business, as it deals with the effects of at-fault accidents, which can be costly and dangerous.
Now, insurance companies lean into the humor that started with the GEICO gecko in 1999. An advertising agency called The Martin Agency invented the renowned reptile to reinforce GEICO’s name, which many people do not know is an acronym for Government Employees Insurance Company. Since the success of the gecko, the company has debuted the cavemen (which turned into a short-lived sitcom) and the infamous rhetorical questions.
But can comedy sell something as important and practical as car insurance? The answer is yes. Pre-gecko GEICO had only 2 percent of the market share4, making it the eighth most popular car insurance provider in the U.S. But as of 2020, GEICO comes in at No. 2 behind State Farm, with a total 14 percent of the market share. Naturally, other companies have followed suit with characters such as Progressive’s Flo and Allstate’s Mayhem.
Another case study is Progressive. In 2007, Progressive had little brand recognition, to the point where people often confused it with Progresso Soup. But after working with the Arnold Worldwide ad agency, it debuted the superstore idea with iconic cashier Flo in 2008. The actress who played Flo, Stephanie Courtney, was a graduate of The Groundlings, a sketch and improvisational comedy troupe and school based in Los Angeles. The commercial soon became a recurring ad sitcom, making Flo a household name. Who says improv can’t be lucrative?
Like the GEICO gecko, Progressive’s funny ads had a huge effect on its business. From 2008 to 2018, its revenue more than doubled from $13.6 billion to nearly $30 billion.5