Making Utility Ads Fun and Memorable

You may not recognize the name of Professor Nathaniel Burke. But I’m pretty sure you’ve seen him and know who he is. And that tells us a lot about the future of utility advertising.

Prof. Burke is not a utility mascot. He doesn’t teach at an Ivy League university. And I’m pretty sure he knows no more about electricity or natural gas than the average utility customer.

Played by veteran character actor J.K. Simmons (left), Prof. Burke is the low-key star of an extended TV advertising campaign from Farmers Insurance. He’s the tweedy, common-sense instructor at the “University of Farmers” insurance school where he teaches Farmers Insurance agents-in-training the ins and outs of the insurance business.

Oh swell—insurance! Is there anything more BORING than insurance? If you want a time-tested cure for insomnia, read your insurance policy. Even insurance agents rarely read their own personal policies cover-to-cover.

So what could Prof. Burke and Farmers Insurance ads possibly teach utilities about advertising? Plenty! After all, insurance and utility services are perennial low-engagement categories for consumers. Most consumers only interact with their utility or insurance company when there’s a problem—the bill is wrong, the lights go out, you suspect there’s a gas leak, or your vehicle was involved in an accident.

In the ads, Prof. Burke illustrates common household or business insurance issues in a colorful, memorable, and humorous way:

  • He demonstrates the danger of laundry-room dryer fires by igniting a 50-foot high ball of dryer lint with a flame thrower (right)
  • He shows the dangers of distracted driving by simulating a car ride where the driver is eating pizza, talking on the phone, putting on makeup and talking to friends in the backseat—at the same time
  • He discusses the frequency of slip-and-fall accidents and the perils of water damage to business as lobsters scuttle across a water-soaked restaurant floor
  • He uses a giant jack-in-the-box, and a falling piece of space junk, to show that life’s surprises can be jarring and unwelcome

Even if you’re a dedicated commercial-zapper like me, when you see these ads, you find yourself rewinding the DVR to find out what’s being promoted. Using colorful art like a flame-thrower or a 10-foot tall jack-in-the-box to dramatize the importance of living and working safely is inspired advertising.

Utility advertising might be more effective if it moved in this direction. Think about safety, a very important topic for electric and gas utilities. Can you remember the last utility safety ad you saw? Exactly.  As a rule, utility safety ads have bland art and parental-sounding copy—a far cry from the color, creativity, and memorability of “University of Farmers” ads.

Consider the broader range of topics on which utilities are trying to communicate with their customers. For years utility communicators have said, “We need to educate our customers on ____________.” But whether it is on electric safety, energy usage, conservation, or advanced meters, utilities continue to report difficulty breaking through to customers.

In my experience, this is largely a self-inflicted wound. Yes, today’s media market is extremely cluttered. Breaking through that clutter is doubly hard for organizations that are uncomfortable pushing creative envelopes. As a case in point, I recall one utility pulled an ad after it was created but before it aired. It showed a dead body lying on a slab in a morgue. The copy point was, “This is what could happen when you are unsafe around electric lines.”

OK, maybe the art was too gruesome, though I don’t remember the body being disfigured or shown in a close up. But jarring or unusual images are the essence of successful advertising. They break through the clutter and force people to stop what they’re doing and pay attention. Paired with a skillful call to action, effective advertising can change consumer behavior.






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