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Throughout recent history, innovative marketing professionals have sought to lure advertisers with new and exciting ways to communicate with ever-expanding, often fickle, audiences, and to offer their products and services through new media, or with attractive incentives to utilize a competing medium.

Audience measurement and the impact of the media were always -- and continue to be -- critical in that decision-making process. However, simple yardsticks, such as audience numbers, demographic profiles and cost-per-thousand ratios, are no longer as easily attainable as when we were dealing with just two main media groups: print and broadcast.

A big part of the problem is catching up with the widely increased availability of cable TV and independent networks, satellite signal delivery and the advent of seemingly endless stand-alone and hyper-linked sites on the World Wide Web. These new opportunities have not escaped insurance advertisers, which, at latest observation, are nearly besieged with varying options.

Through the years, there have been many efforts to widen the scope of media opportunities; some were successful, some were not. Remember the introduction of skywriting and banner advertising presented via slow-flying aircraft over beaches and ballparks? Those remain popular attention-getters, as are the huge blimps that provide sky shots over major sporting events.

Then there were the failures, such as beer advertising on the underside of manhole covers, a plan intended to attract sewer workers to a particular brand of brew as they emerged for a lunch break.

In addition, for a short while, there were experimental attempts at advertising on the back of church pews to take advantage of captive audiences.

However, even "tasteful" approaches to pew advertising were rejected as crass commercialism and failed dismally to become even mildly acceptable. We were introduced to the concept when we were the ad agency for The Home Insurance Co.

The theme of our ad was very close to "The family that prays together stays together," and it depicted just that. The modest punchline suggested was "The Home takes care of families, too."

Most recently, ABC-TV was sold on the concept of applying advertising stickers to bananas to promote the television network. Can you imagine if bananas became a viable advertising vehicle? It's an absolute certainty that somebody would be bound to approach advertisers of accident insurance with a proposal. But how would he or she present the cost/benefit ratio? Who buys the banana, who peels it, who eats it? Now there is a market research nightmare.

Just recently we learned that some extremely innovative high-techie has developed a technique whereby as you are "surfing the net" and arrive at a particular "sponsored site," your cursor is instantly transformed to the logo of the sponsor. I guess that means we can look forward to the day not so far away when suddenly we find ourselves pointing and clicking with a Travelers umbrella or other insurance company logo.

How much is that worth from an advertising standpoint? Again, I'd hate to be the one to develop a price predicated on a cost/benefit ratio. It's hard enough to measure the number of hits on a particular site, without trying to determine the demographics and buying power of who is visiting.

Memory lane

The "good old days" were a lot less trying on professional media planners, buyers, directors, and measuring organizations. There simply were a lot fewer choices, and most of them were measurable with a fair degree of reliability.

For example, insurance companies, banks and stock brokers were inevitably drawn to the high-end print media.

National Geographic accepted only limited advertising in each issue, and this upscale audience became a favorite of the insurance industry.

In the '60s and '70s, there were very few issues of "Geo" that didn't contain life and/or property/casualty advertising. There was "Living Insurance" from Equitable; and Met Life bragged that "More -- millions more -- choose Metropolitan Life." Anybody remember USF&G's "People, Places and Things" ad series? There was the "Royal Globe Is There" events campaign and The St. Paul Cos., which came out of hiding in a late-'60s program with an ad, among others in the series, entitled "Who'd Insure An Elephant Riding A Raft?"

The St. Paul, as with most other American Agency System companies in those days, always directed readers to "See the Yellow Pages for their nearest agent." And those also were the days when there really was only one Yellow Pages. Now, it becomes another media buying nightmare to know which directories are most effective in which areas.

Again, in our early experience as the advertising agency for The Home during the '60s and '70s, in their national advertising -- then directed to both personal and commercial lines insurance buyers -- we not only steered readers to the Yellow Pages, but also The Home co-opted much of the cost of this advertising.

Usually, the agent paid only for its own agency listing. And because we knew precisely what directories existed, where they were distributed and their importance as a medium to identify the "sales force" to its most important customers and prospects, The Home would pay for a Home "heading" in any major directory where even a single Home agent wanted to appear.

That's not so easy these days, with a plethora of print directories available. Even without including the directory "listings" available on the Internet, it would cost a fortune to "cover the waterfront" today, as we did then.

The direct writers

Speaking of insurance advertising in the days of yore, guess who was a big insurance advertiser in National Geographic, and guess who was promoting its agency force?

You're correct if you guessed Allstate and its "Good Hands" theme. Allstate's theme in the late '70s was to feature real policyholders whose real problems were solved, or at least mitigated, by real Allstate agents whose pictures were there and whose names were named.

Sound familiar? That goes a long way to proving what great success can be achieved when you discover a winning concept and stick with it.

In fact, it is interesting to see just how much money is being spent today by the direct writers.

Clearly, now, as then, they are a dominant factor -- and they utilize media across the board, unlike their American Agency System counterparts. Take, for example, the Yellow Pages as a national advertising medium.

The 1994 to 1995 figures, as reported by Advertising Age, a sister publication to Business Insurance, are particularly intriguing. A couple of years ago, of the top 25 advertisers, only two were insurance companies. Allstate, of course, with an expenditure of $12 million in 1996, is one of them, but what is interesting is that represented a 20% decrease from the year before, when Allstate spent $15 million.

On the other hand, State Farm, the only other insurer in the top 25 Yellow Pages advertisers, spent $9.2 million, up modestly from the previous year, when it expended a flat $9.0 million in directory advertising.

As part of their mixed-media concept, during those same two years, Allstate was the only insurance advertiser in the top 25 when it came to Spot Radio advertising. In that category, its expenditures increased a rather dramatic 35% to $10.8 million in '95 from from $8.0 million in '94.

It's always worthwhile to analyze Allstate's expenditure pattern because, from a marketing standpoint, far more than any insurer, it seems to consistently make the right decisions.

More current trends

According to Competitive Media Reporting, "Measured Advertising" for the Insurance Industry (which is reported in tandem with Real Estate) barely maintained its 12th position in U.S. advertising in 1996, despite a fairly substantial spending increase over the prior year.

The total expended by Insurance/Real Estate was $1.64 billion overall, up from $1.4 billion the year before, a not-too-modest 18.5% increase.

Also noteworthy are the mixed trends of insurance advertising in some measured media:

* Consumer magazines: Insurers spent $198.2 million on this category in 1996, well below several other categories, such as automobile and pharmaceutical.

* Sunday magazines: Insurance companies spent $10.5 million on this vehicle in 1996. That is below many categories with substantially lower overall advertising budgets, such as apparel/footwear/accessories, which spent three times as much in Sunday magazine ads even though that category had nearly $3 billion less in advertising budgets.

* Local newspapers: Here, the insurers' 1996 expenditure of $572.9 million far outstrips the total advertising budgets of all categories except the four that finished ahead of insurers in local newspaper advertising.

* National newspapers: The expenditure of $47.1 million seems consistent with what seems to be logical for the medium vis-a-vis local newspapers.

* Network television: The apparently low figure of $278.7 million is less surprising when broken out into spot, syndicated and cable TV spending: spot television, $298.9 million; syndicated television, $7.8 million; and cable television, $99.1 million.

* Local radio: $46.1 million again seems a bit low, considering how many independent agents and brokers find this medium one of their most effective, cost-efficient advertising efforts for personal lines.

Sports in the mix

In virtually all measurements made, sports enthusiasts are still an excellent market for insurance advertisers.

The reason for this used to be because sports programs drew a heavy male audience, and it was men who theoretically made the insurance buying decisions.

Well, a couple of things have changed. For one, more and more women are now either "influencing" or, especially in the case of a female head of household, making the final decision.

However, sports programming -- including the Olympics and, of course, tournament tennis and golf -- is now attracting many more women. Now there is even a women's professional basketball league, which seems to be gaining popularity.

Accordingly, you might have noticed that sports TV anchors, announcers and personalities are often women who are very sports-savvy. So, as those adjustments are made, sports is still an important draw for insurance advertisers and sponsors.

In golf, Kemper has been in the forefront for many years, but sponsoring a tournament is not an incidental expense.

The Independent Insurance Agents of America learned all about that when it put its toes in the water as the sponsor of what was then the Houston Open, a PGA Tour stop. To make such sponsorship work, a company needs to put up a million dollars or more in prize money and an equal amount in promoting the event, plus pay for the substantial advertising required by the network within the telecast itself.

And then there are the "freebies" for important clients.

Depending on how much you want to merchandise the once-a-year event, a modest advertising budget of $3 or $4 million can be very easily blown in two weeks. Then what?

It was the lack of an answer to that question -- in addition to the difficulty of getting the media to use the sponsor's name (i.e., the Independent Insurance Agents of America Open) in their reporting -- that ended the Big I's sponsorship after just three years.

The bigger insurance advertisers -- Prudential, for example -- can afford to invest in sponsorship of major sports programming. Pru recently renewed its sponsorship of the NBA games on NBC through the year 2002. The package includes sponsorship of the halftime show.

On the other hand, with higher and higher price tags on such blockbuster audience programs as the Super Bowl, you won't see too many insurance advertisers jumping aboard.

A single 30-second spot during the Super Bowl, depending upon an advertiser's other advertising commitments with the network, can run well in excess of $1 million.

Sometimes, of course, advertisers will look at just certain markets they are particularly interested in, and make buys within the so-called "local pods." An example of this was the Ohio Casualty Group, which recently bought into the highly touted Seinfeld finale -- but only in the Cincinnati and Denver markets. Interestingly, its new advertising tag line is "Protect What's Yours," and we suspect that includes their advertising budget.