It was a priceless moment at the 25th annual ESPY Awards in Los Angeles Wednesday night — and the Aflac duck was in the middle of it all, well, sort of.
Retired NFL quarterback and Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning was the host for the night and in his element of poking fun at those athletes gathered in the ESPY audience.
At one point in the opening monologue, Manning deadpanned that he isn’t in the NFL any longer, thus isn’t rivals with the New England Patriots or the Atlanta Falcons. The latter he previously joked about the team choking in February’s Super Bowl clash against the Patriots.
“Right now, my only rivals are in the insurance game, and I play for team Nationwide,” Manning said. “And I’ve got to compete with Flo from Progressive, Mr. Discount Double Check Aaron Rodgers … and that damn Aflac duck.”
The camera then moved from Rodgers to a white duck with an Aflac-blue bowtie, sitting in a red velvet seat. The feathered creature was virtually identical to that seen in dozens of Aflac commercials and elsewhere.
The audience roared with laughter and applause, with the presumed Aflac duck striking a quizzical pose, glancing a little left and a little right.
“How did the duck get a better seat than DeAndre Jordan? I don’t get that,” Manning said, pointing to the NBA player sitting in the audience. “I didn’t realize they were getting a real duck, either. That’s, uh, wow.”
The fact is, while it was a hilarious moment of the sports awards show, it wasn’t the real Aflac duck sitting among the stars, Aflac spokesman Jon Sullivan said Thursday. On top of that, the supplemental health and life insurer headquartered on Wynnton Road in Columbus didn’t even see the spotlight coming.
“We did not orchestrate that. We saw it when everybody else saw it,” he said. “That was something that, I guess, the producers of the show did on their own. We were as surprised as anybody.”
Not that Aflac and its Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dan Amos, who came up with the squawking duck ad campaign 17 years ago, didn’t relish the publicity received by the company without shelling out a single nickel.
It actually has become fairly commonplace for Aflac and its duck to be mentioned by comedians such as Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, as well as news organizations in business segments, both usually in the vein of a light or comedic moment. After all, humor is the duck ad campaign’s calling card.
“That is the best kind. You’re not paying for it,” Sullivan said. “I think it just demonstrates the icon status of the Aflac duck in that it will be used from time to time in situations just like this to make people laugh about something that is completely unrelated to Aflac ... You look at the duck and you want to laugh.”
The popularity of the whimsical bird through a series of 30-second television commercials, sports trivia moments, and appearances during major events such as the Olympics and Grammy Awards — not to mention its philanthropic impact — have pushed Aflac’s brand awareness to lofty heights through the years.
Aflac’s marketing budget is in the neighborhood of $100 million a year, Sullivan said. That means the freebie publicity such as that served up by Manning at the ESPYs is icing on the proverbial financial cake.
In contrast, insurer Geico spent about $1.1 billion on advertising in 2015, according to data firm Statista. State Farm shelled out $543 million that year, with Progressive forking over $516 million, Liberty Mutual doling out $354 million and Nationwide writing a collective marketing check of $271 million.