Scary Good

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Allstate Insurance is running a campaign in which the threats of trees falling on cars, teens nicking car bumpers, and pets trashing upholstery are portrayed by a character named "Mayhem." I think it’s scary good advertising.

The actor, Dean Winters, is wonderfully smarmy. He was hilariously memorable as Tina Fey’s self-adoring idiot ex-boyfriend on "30 Rock," and in these spots he cheerfully promises mayhem on dark roads and in crowded parking lots. He’s perfect because he’s sinister in the same way that stripes threaten to clash with plaid. I get the point but I’m not scared.

Which is why the critics’ complaints that the spots resort to fear mongering are plain wrong. Mayhem’s mischief is an expression of reality; fate (or chance) is capricious, and that’s why there’s such a thing as insurance in the first place. So these ads manage to tell the truth, which is 1) an immense accomplishment for the category, and 2) directionally illustrative of what other advertisers should do.

The Mayhem campaign is a creative solution to a strategic problem for Allstate, which is that it’s in the business of selling vitamins, not aspirin. This is why its competitors have focused on cost as the selling point; it’s the wrong benefit, especially for any policyholder who has an accident, but it’s easier to sell the present benefit of less cash out of their pockets in premiums, vs. the future value of quicker and more generous payouts in times of need. It’s doubly tough because Allstate can’t promise to be any better on the back-end — it channels the Tubes’ "What Do You Want From Life?" when it implicitly admits that you can’t have that — so the ads simply state the purposes for having insurance, which aren’t to have a low monthly fee as Geiko suggests, nor is it something that consumers are qualified to structure or price, as Progressive promises.

You buy insurance to be prepared for bad things happening.

Allstate’s chief marketer explained in The New York Times that "The company you do business with matters; you get what you pay for." This is far more insightful than any of the blather about what the brand stands for, or how Allstate might fit into some imaginary pie chart of insurance agency positioning that is real only in a boardroom slide presentation. It suggests a world of innovations that the company could consider to make itself truly stand out from its competition, though that would require some heavy lifting. The Mayhem ads are an easy first step. Does it pay faster than Aflac? Are its settlements more generous than State Farm’s? Is it easier to get a hold of an Allstate agent at 2 a.m. on a Sunday than somebody working for American Family?

Such questions are what will ultimately distinguish the Allstate brand from its competition, especially among the aging, multi-policy households on which any insurance company should make its best margins.

So I find it funny that the one question the marketing trades seem concerned about is the fate of actor Dennis Haysbert (the President in "24"), who has appeared in the company’s spots since 2003. He’s a character, or a prompt for attention that should never get confused with the brand, and nobody is keeping track of who’s getting paid to appear in ads except the folks who pay for who’s appearing in ads. Geese, cavemen, and irritating retail store clerks are symptoms of the insurance industry’s inability (or unwillingness) to differentiate great promotions from branding. They’re all tactics, nothing more, and that goes for Haysbert, too. If he comes back, great, and if not, who cares?

An exec at Allstate’s ad agency Leo Burnett evidenced a similar confusion when she commented that "Good advertising invites you into the brand" (also in the Times article). No it doesn’t. Good advertising sells stuff, or at least prompts actions that lead to selling stuff, as shown by Allstate’s low-cost competitors. The brand comes from the way policies are written and serviced, and the jury is still out on whether Allstate will live up to the prompts that its new Mayhem campaign should provide. Mayhem is great advertising, and hopefully Burnett is working overtime to help facilitate a broader, more substantive operationalization of the brand for their client.

The web site isn’t encouraging, if that’s any indication so far. It wastes space rerunning the commercials (why not give extra content like outtakes for visitors who register for more info?), and visitors are presented with a next step that’s a giant leap: talk to an agent or get a quote (where are more reasonable intermediate steps, like a widget that lets you check whether your state requires comprehensive coverage and spits out a generic cost of not having it, or a social media mechanism to share horror stories of bad experiences with competitors?).

But I’m hopeful. The Mayhem campaign suggests some scary good possibilities for Allstate.

(Photo: screen grab from one of the Mayhem spots, courtesy of YouTube)

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