The most confusing ad on television.

The most confusing ad on television.

The most confusing ad on television.

Advertising deconstructed.
Nov. 13 2006 7:27 AM

The Most Confusing Ad on Television

That pink-haired, animated superspy is selling what?

The Spot:A cartoon man and woman are players in some sort of futuristic football game. They wear spacesuits and helmets. Their opponents are large, menacing robots. One of the robots shoots snow out of his chest, coating the field in big white drifts. The cartoon woman—who has pink hair—runs with the football, scores a touchdown, and then topples one of the robots. As all this is happening, the man and the woman are having an ongoing conversation about … something. I never quite catch what it is.

Video file.; The rise of the interjection 'Awwa'!; Marlon Brando in a scene from Reflections in a Golden Eye.; Brando; marlon brando; Reflections in a Golden Eye; http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid533275934 http://www.brightcove.com/channel.jsp?channel=78144477

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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After seeing this ad roughly 37,000 times, I finally said to myself (and this happened only because I write a column about advertising), "Wow, I've seen this ad 37,000 times, and not once have I paid any attention to it. I still don't remember what they're trying to sell me."

The next time I saw the ad (and again, only because I write about advertising), I made an effort to note what it was for. It's for Esurance, an online car-insurance company. But I remained convinced that the spot would wash over the average viewer, leaving no impression. The problem: That surreal, out-of-nowhere storyline is just way too distracting.

Look at the clip we've posted—and imagine that you're sitting on your couch, idly waiting for SportsCenter to come back on, rather than hunched attentively over your computer screen. Personally, I'm lost from the moment the ad begins. Who are these animated characters? What's their relationship? Why are they playing football, against robots, in outer space? And—just like that—I've lost interest. I'm sipping my beer, gazing out the window until the next commercial comes on, and hey, it's the Geico caveman! He sells online car insurance! I love that guy!

The other ads in the Esurance campaign also feature bizarre plotlines that in no way relate to car insurance. (And before you shout that the caveman also has nothing to do with car insurance, remember that Geico runs a wide variety of spots on TV—some of which are straightforward, conventional pitches. Esurance runs only these weirdo cartoons, with no simple, down-to-earth spots to back them up.) Each Esurance ad features the pink-haired Erin Esurance. Though we never hear her name in the ads, we are made to understand she is a superspy of some sort. On the Esurance Web site, you can watch an ad that shows Erin battling robots in a Wild West shoot'em-up; another where she clashes with ninjas who are breaking into an art museum; and still others that I just don't get at all. Yes, in each spot the dialogue makes salient points about the benefits of Esurance. But those confusing, busy plotlines drown out the message. While we're hearing this: "At Esurance, if we can't give you the best deal we'll show you where you can—and help you buy the policy right away," we're seeing this: a robot, in a cowboy hat and duster, firing a machine gun at a woman with pink hair. Wha?

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Animation can work brilliantly in advertising. In this animated Charles Schwab campaign, the drawings are so simple and static that they force our attention to the words being spoken. But the Esurance campaign's animation does just the opposite.

I called Esurance to get their side of the story and learned that these ads were made in-house, without any help from an advertising agency. (No surprise there. What decent agency would commit the Advertising 101 mistake of letting the message get lost in the clutter?) The woman I spoke with was Kristen Brewe—who created this campaign from scratch, continues to write all the ads, and is very proud of the whole concept. Brewe considers the ads a "labor of love" and excitedly told me about upcoming plotlines in which Erin Esurance will battle clones and global warming. Which made me feel bad about the fact that I hate her campaign.

Still, Brewe offered two good defenses of these ads:

1) She says Esurance's business is way up this year, and that the "needle moves" in every market when they debut the ads. I believe her. But it's also true that business is better for all car insurance providers (apparently, people are getting in fewer accidents these days, so the margins are better—which explains why you're seeing so many car insurance ads on TV). And I'm not surprised the ads are having some effect when they hit a new market. If you buy as much airtime as Esurance does, you're bound to win over at least a few people—no matter how bad your campaign is.

2) Brewe says men are a big target of this campaign. She's bought airtime on ESPN, SciFi, Adult Swim on Cartoon Network, and other guy-heavy outlets. Why? Brewe discovered that Erin Esurance has become a bit of a sex symbol for a certain kind of dude. Indeed, a quick Web search soon found graphic, nude drawings of Erin Esurance performing sexual acts. Scary. But possibly very good news for Esurance.

Grade: C+. If Esurance wanted to, it could devise a more effective ad campaign than this one tomorrow. But I admit that, even as I write, a select group of you is no doubt waking (or is it wanking?) to the charms of Erin Esurance. You're eager to see what sort of mess she'll get into next. And you're hoping that, whatever she gets into, she also gets into a satin negligee. Or maybe a nurse's outfit. I suppose if there are enough of you comic book perverts out there treating these ads like anime porn, visiting the Esurance web site to learn more about Erin, well … I'll be forced to raise my grade.