How a legend was made of advertising quackery

Feature Aflac Duck Panel

Advertising Hall of Famer Linda Kaplan Thaler loves desperate clients because they will let her do anything. Sometimes, it still takes some convincing, however, as in the remarkable case of the Aflac duck.

Kaplan Thaler was the featured speaker during the long-awaited IB Presents titled “Bang: Getting your message heard in a post COVID-19 world,” which was held virtually on June 2 after more than a year’s delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on how informative and entertaining she was, it was well worth the wait, as virtual attendees learned about how several famously successful advertising campaigns, all created by Kaplan Thaler’s advertising agency, reaffirmed her core beliefs about the creative process.

Just ducky

In particular, virtual viewers learned about the enduring value of disruptive ideas, particularly one that involved a little-known supplemental insurance company, a tweaking of Kaplan Thaler’s nose, and the only duck ever inducted into the Advertising Walk of Fame.

Just over 20 years ago, the Kaplan Thaler Group was among many advertising agencies that were pitching the CEO of this relatively obscure company in Columbus, Georgia, which had only 2% market awareness despite having spent more than $100 million in advertising. The company’s name was Aflac, and in hopes of inspiring a more effective ad campaign, CEO Dan Amos provided the prospective agencies with a ton of research. After every other agency representative had left the room, Kaplan Thaler cut to the chase with a simple question to Amos: What keeps you awake? Given the lack of public awareness about Aflac, the answer was hardly surprising.

“He said, ‘You know what bothers me? Even my good friends and relatives do not remember the name of my company,’” Kaplan Thaler recounts.

That made sense to her because Aflac is an acronym (for American Family Life Assurance Co.), and she assured Amos that her agency would come back with a way for American consumers to remember the name. “He said, ‘If you can do that, I don’t care if you show me a naked man tap dancing on a roof, I’ll buy it.’”

Fortunately, Kaplan Thaler didn’t have to resort to such an extreme, but finding a creative, disruptive solution required a happy accident in an agency that found great value in joking around. “It wasn’t that easy because we went back to the agency and nobody could remember what we were pitching,” she recalls. “Everybody would come up to me and go, ‘What is it called again?’”

She would reply, “Aflac, Aflac, Aflac,” to the point where she became tired of saying it. As Kaplan Thaler recalls, that’s when the creative — and collaborative — juices started flowing. “Finally, one of the art directors came up to me and said, ‘Could you say that again?’

“Aflac,” she repeated, and the art director pinched her nose (perfectly acceptable behavior at this very informal agency, she notes).

“Aflac,” she repeated, as the nose-pinching took place.

The art director then remarked, “You sound like a duck quacking.”

“He was kidding around, but — wah! — I thought it was a spark of genius.”

So, during what passes for the kind of deep, intellectual exercise required to run an advertising agency (according to Kaplan Thaler), they found the answer.

“That’s it!” she exclaimed, before also concluding that the duck should be the insurance salesman and nobody in the commercial should hear him because he’s a duck, but the viewing audience will be forced to hear him over and over again — and they’ll love it.

There was one more hurdle, however, because when the agency showed the idea to Amos, he wouldn’t even test it. He told Kaplan Thaler that he wanted the campaign to feature emotional, heartfelt, person-to-person advertising, “not a silly quacking duck.”

At that point, Kaplan Thaler suggested that she and then business partner Robin Koval pay for the testing themselves, and Amos agreed to give the results a hearing.

“Well, we did it and it came back that this little quacking duck was the most intrusive, memorable advertising that had ever been done in the insurance category, and our Aflac duck, overnight, became a sensation,” Kaplan Thaler says.

The duck, which first was given commercial voice by comedian Gilbert Gottfried, was so sensational that Aflac zoomed to 96% market awareness, the company quadrupled its sales, and the duck is now a Harvard University case study in marketing.

Kaplan Thaler jokes that she gets emotional about this success story, but not for the reason one would suspect. “What I’m most touched about is that now, when ducks see other ducks, they immediately think of supplemental insurance. It does my heart good.”

All kidding aside, the Aflac duck campaign demonstrated a key feature of what Kaplan Thaler calls “bang” ideas. They take over the cultural universe seemingly overnight.

Kaplan Thaler, the first woman to win the prestigious Clio Lifetime Achievement Award, is the author of advertising campaigns that grew the Kaplan Thaler Group from a startup to a company with more than $1 billion in billings. She and Koval also co-authored several books, including Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World.

In today’s noisy environment, she notes that disruptive ideas are the only ones that stick. “We live in a world where we better be disruptive because we’re seeing anywhere from 5,000–7,000 messages a day, and like cooked spaghetti, only a couple of them actually stick to the walls of our brains,” Kaplan Thaler states. “What happens with this data is that it’s an incoming stream that hits the dopamine center of your brain, which is where addiction lies. So, you not only want this incoming data, but you crave it more and more and more.

“It’s very hard to get anybody to listen to you or watch you or notice you,” she adds, “and that’s why you have to be so incredibly disruptive.”

She notes that all this data has created what psychologists now call absent presence, where people physically can be in a place, but most of the time they are “virtually” someplace else. Kaplan Thaler referenced a study by Microsoft Corp. which found that the average human being has an attention span of eight seconds, which partly explains why disruptive ideas are also the most memorable.

“I’m going to say this again in case any of you were looking at your email,” she quipped. “The average attention span of a human being is eight seconds, but what made this groundbreaking is that the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. Even the goldfish could not believe this study when they read it.”

Bang theory

During the June 2 IB Presents, sponsored by Edgewood College and EZ Office Products, Kaplan Thaler used the Big Bang theory to describe the type of agency she set out to create and offered insights to foster a more creative workplace as we transition out of COVID-19 pandemic.

“That was the beginning of our idea … How could we create an environment that was like a Big Bang, something that was just so electric, an atmosphere where people just wanted to create things and would come up with ideas that would just burst. We decided that in order to do that, since we didn’t really have any money at the time, we weren’t going to lead with fear and intimidation like in the post-Mad Men days. We were going to have to do it with flowers and chocolates.”

Flowers, chocolates, and a little advice from President Harry Truman, who once said, “You can accomplish anything in your lifetime as long as you’re willing to take credit for none of it.”

So, the all-women agency — “We used to say that we had enough estrogen to make Arnold Schwarzenegger ovulate,” Kaplan Thaler jokes, “but we eventually invited guys”— began by enforcing the idea of sharing ideas with people. That cultural attitude was an anathema in the advertising industry, but nobody can argue with the results.

“We were very happy with the results of what was going on in our agency because people felt like they were appreciated,” she notes. “You know, the No. 1 reason that people leave their jobs is not because of money, it’s because they don’t feel respected or acknowledged by their immediate boss. So, we made sure that people felt like they were being heard, and what happened was we started to win a lot of business.”

Now president and CEO of the marketing and advertising firm Kaplan Thaler Productions, she noted that Google conducted a study that examined different groups at the technology giant in an attempt to find out which groups were the most successful and most profitable for the company. Management originally assumed it was going to be the people who were the smartest or the most talented, but that wasn’t the case. The groups that were most productive are the groups that had what the study called psychological safety.

People in this category had some level of confidence that others would not step on their words or pan their ideas. Such people “were trying to not steal the limelight, and they became friendly, and they became supportive of each other, and those were the groups that were actually the most successful,” Kaplan Thaler notes. “Interestingly enough — and this isn’t a theory, it’s actually true — neuroscientists have found that we are not born with a finite amount of creativity, or intellect, or anything. Our mind is very elastic and it’s constantly expanding.

“They have a saying, the neuroscientists, that the more you fire ideas, the more you wire ideas,” she adds. “In other words, the very act of doing something creative — thinking of things in different ways — makes these synapses connect in different ways and, finally, you get wired to just become more creative.”

Up next: Selling an experience

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