Looking back at Alex Trebek’s legacy in advertising
Canadian television host Alex Trebek, who died on Sunday aged 80 following a prolonged battle with pancreatic cancer, is best known as the face of the evergreen game show “Jeopardy!” but keen viewers may also remember him stumping for brands during commercial breaks.
Born in 1940 in Sudbury, Ontario—a small mining town 250 miles north of Toronto—Trebek would go on to earn a philosophy degree from the University of Ottawa before carving out an early niche in media with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, appearing on a string of the national broadcaster’s TV and radio programs in the 1960s.
“I went to school in the mornings and worked at nights,” Trebek later recalled of his time with the CBC. "I did everything, at one time replacing every announcer in every possible job."
In the early ‘70s, he moved to the United States and formally began his television career, hosting a series of short-lived game shows including NBC’s “The Wizard of Odds” and “High Rollers,” and CBS’ “Double Dare.”
More than 10 years after Trebek’s departure from his native Canada, entertainment titan Merv Griffin tapped him to host a daily syndicated version of “Jeopardy!” that would become an instant hit. Trebek helmed the quiz show from the first episode’s premiere on Sep. 10, 1984—which featured an adland copywriter as its inaugural contestant—until his death yesterday morning.
Throughout a decades-long career, Trebek became a reliable presence and household name in North America, with a 2013 Reader’s Digest poll naming him one of the 10 most trusted people in the United States—beating out fellow game show host Pat Sajak, then-President Barack Obama and every justice on the Supreme Court.
And, for brands looking for celebrity ambassadors, Trebek’s perceived familiarity made him an ideal pitchman.
Perhaps the “Jeopardy!” host’s best known credit in the advertising world is as a spokesman for the Philadelphia-based Colonial Penn Life Insurance Company, for whom he’d often relay an “important message” during commercial breaks.
For years, compensated endorser Trebek starred in ads for the Colonial Penn Program—some of which are up to two minutes in length—touting affordable, rate-locked life insurance policies for consumers between the ages of 50 and 85. Trebek’s endorsements have long been the bedrock of Colonial Penn’s marketing efforts, with the game show personality appearing in TV spots for the insurance company since 1998.
And while many of his Colonial Penn ads have been retired, some are still going strong, with Trebek’s “Three P’s” commercial—his most popular, with nearly 19,000 individual airings—running on TV as recently as this morning, according to data from iSpot.tv.
In all, Trebek’s Colonial Penn spots have netted 12.8 billion impressions from roughly 50,000 airings on national linear television, the ad measurement company says.
Despite his prominence as a spokesman for Colonial Penn, Trebek has lent himself to several other brands’ marketing campaigns over the past two decades, with his IMDb page listing ad credits for Holiday Inn Express, DirecTV and Wheat Thins.
Despite his cancer and rounds of treatment, the ever-witty Trebek soldiered on, joking at the time of his diagnosis in March 2019 that his contract required him to stay alive to keep hosting.
In his final years on the show, Trebek didn’t shy away from advertising work, appearing most recently in a commercial for voice-activated game app Drivetime last year. “Would you like to have me, Alex Trebek, with you in your car everywhere you go?” he asks. “With ‘Jeopardy!’ on Drivetime, it can happen.”
Following the news of Trebek’s death, the internet was flooded with an outpouring of love and condolences for the man who has been a welcome daily presence in the lives of so many.
“For many of us, Alex Trebek was a daily part of our lives. As the host of ‘Jeopardy!’ for almost four decades, he hosted more episodes of a single television game show than anyone else in history,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement.
After 36 years and more than 8,000 Trebek-led episodes, it will be the end of a “Jeopardy!” era when the beloved Canadian host posthumously signs off for the last time on Christmas Day, when his final episode will air.
There will be no announcement about plans to install a new “Jeopardy!” host at this time, Sony Pictures confirmed in a statement.