Call it the "American Idol" of the insurance industry.
After letting go comedian Gilbert Gottfried, the screechy voice of Aflac's ad icon for 11 years, the insurer has gone duck hunting, launching a nationwide search for America's next great quacker.
In the first 24 hours after the open casting began March 24, some 28,500 people had viewed the insurer's job description on Monster and QuackAflac.com. About 1,500 had submitted an application through both sites. The company hopes to make a decision by the end of April.
"We wanted to open this up to well-known talent as well as undiscovered talent to see what we might get," said Laura Kane, VP-external communications for Aflac. "Agents tell us that when they make a call to customers, people can't say Aflac without quacking it."
Potential quackers can audition live April 4 and 5 in New York; Los Angles; Chicago; Las Vegas; Austin, Texas; and Atlanta. Participants can also apply online by including a video or audio clip.
In the interim, the company is running a TV ad it dubs "Silent Movie," featuring the duck without the signature voice. The ad is retooled from a 2005 campaign Aflac ran, which included several ads in homage to classic movie genres.
Aflac parted ways with Mr. Gottfried just days after the disaster in Japan, following a series of insensitive tweets. Among his Twitter comments: "I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, 'They'll [sic] be another one floating by any minute now.'" Mr. Gottfried has since removed the offending comments and apologized on Twitter.
Those jabs hit too close to home for Aflac. Japan, the only other country aside from the U.S. that the company operates in, represents about 70% of the company's revenue. Aflac has between 4,500 and 5,000 employees and 115,000 agents in Japan alone.
"Overwhelmingly, people think we did the right thing. But we are hearing from people who thought we needed to reconsider it. We're not," said Ms. Kane. "We think Gilbert did a great job, we just need to move on."
More than likely, consumers won't even notice the duck's new voice. "To the degree people are even aware of the change, there might be even a brief boost in awareness," said Steven Weisbart, senior VP-chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute. And with voice-overs, especially if it's for an animated character, "a celebrity voice doesn't always give added value," said Robert Passikoff, founder-president of consultancy Brand Keys.
Aflac puts big bucks behind the duck -- $81 million in measured media last year, according to Kantar.
It's no surprise that Aflac has no plans to muck with the duck. Prior to the 2000 campaign, Aflac had about 11% brand awareness. By 2006, the company had 95% brand awareness, meaning that 95% of people surveyed recognized the Aflac brand.
The company declined to disclose the change in the number of policies sold since the introduction of the duck. But according to the Insurance Information Institute, Aflac in the accident and health insurance category was No. 1 among U.S. companies in 2010, with 9.04% of the market, ahead of Aetna, Cigna and MetLife. In 1999 -- the year before the duck became the mascot -- the company had 7.88% of the market share in the category.
"The duck is here to stay," said Ms. Kane.