AFLAC Media Reputation: Impact of Jokes About Tsunami in Japan

(NOTE: You can download here a pdf version of this post, edited by Media, Reputation and Intangibles center, MRI Universidad de Navarra. It contains additional analysis about media reputation of AFLAC rivals, like Metlife, Prudential Financial or Aetna).

In a recent post we showed the list of American companies most affected by the earthquake and tsunami in terms of global media coverage. AFLAC was one of the top ranked companies. As explained there, this was partially due to the fact that this insurance company has a substantial business presence in Japan. We mentioned also that some of the news appearances were related to jokes from a representative of the company using the tsunami as elements of the joke. These jokes were known widely, as they were published by the author trough Twitter. The author of the joke was almost inmediately fired from the company. These events happened on March 14, only three days after the earthquake. As the incresing dimension of the tragedy was evident at that moment and media coverage was massive, this affaire attracted a substantial amount of media attention.

The responsible of the jokes was comedian Gilbert Gottfried. He was the “voice” of AFLAC duck, the official mascot of the company, and apparently present in more than 50 different commercials. Gottfried was working for the company for almost ten years. The press release by AFLAC stated that it “announced today that it has severed ties with comedian Gilbert Gottfried.

“Gilbert’s recent comments about the crisis in Japan were lacking in humor and certainly do not represent the thoughts and feelings of anyone at Aflac,” Aflac Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Michael Zuna said. “Aflac Japan – and, by extension, Japan itself – is part of the Aflac family, and there is no place for anything but compassion and concern during these difficult times.”

Japan is a crucial market for AFLAC. According to AFLAC Company Fact Sheet, they are “the number one insurance company in terms of individual insurance policies in force in Japan”. AFLAC considers that is also a top mind brand in Japan “Promote our number one brand position –We will capitalize on our market-leading status to attract consumers and distinguish our products while emphasizing the attributes that led us to our number one position.” According to their corporate overview: “Aflac Japan is the number one insurance company in Japan in terms of individual policies in force and the largest foreign insurer in Japan in terms of premium income. Aflac Japan also ranks first in the number of individual policies in force among all of Japan’s life insurers and is the fifth most profitable foreign company in any industry in Japan.”

This “lacking in humor” jokes were judged with severity by many media. Negative comments range from “bad taste and judgement” (Washington Post), “insensitive tweets” (USA Today), “insensitive remarks” (New York Times), “tasteless tweets” (ABC News), or “mocking jokes” (AP and Boston Globe).

As we mentioned in the precent post, this case show how big a mistake can develop in episodes of severe crisis submitted to massive media coverage.

In this post we further develop this analysis, showing media reputation of this specific event and its impact in global AFLAC reputation.

We use again the analysis of diamonds of media reputation, as we did is several precedent posts, like for instance the comaprison between media perception of Haiti versus Japan earthquake, or media reputation of Bank of America associated to Wikileaks. Please refer to those post for the explanation of the methodology applied. Basically, the stronger the association with a given media reputation vector, the bigger the diamond is in the graphs.

As we are checkin the impact of an event expected to generate bad reputation, we concentrate the analysis an results showing media reputation associated with “Scandal” and with “Tragedy”.

In next figures we compare the media content profile of news about AFLAC with explicit mentions to the jokes, agains media perception of AFLAC with all news published in March 2011 in relation with the Japanese tsunami. We also introduce as term of comparison the media reputation of AFLAC during year 2010, for news published between August and November 2010.

Results clearly indicate that Gottfried jokes are perceived as shocking by the media, as it produces a substantial increase of relation with “Scandal” association, in comparison with 2010 and current news about AFLAC. Bad image is specially present concerning the vector components of scandalous, harm, mistake and embarrassing.

Concerning the vector “Tragedy”, it penalizes AFLAC specially concerning the components harm and horrible.

The news content analysis technique that we propose at MRI Universidad de Navarra captures the negative impact that this event produces in AFLAC.

How substantial is the negative image transmitted by media coverage about jokes by “AFLAC duck voice”? A way to answer to this question is to compare the profile of these news against other controversial recent events. We compare  AFLAC jokes reputation crisis versus the profile of news referring to Homer Simpson and some episodes with crude humor about nuclear accidents. We compare it also to South Park TV series, as considered transgressor.

Our resuts indicates that Gottfried’s jokes are perceived basically as disgusting as The Simpson episodes related to nuclear plant. AFLAC jokes are more associated to mistake component. In contrast, present time news about South Park animated series is currently weackly associated to “Scandal”. We observe also a similar behaviour trend concerning the reputation vector “Tragedy”.

A surprising but revealing term of comparison is Rebecca Black, one of these new kind of explosive Youtube hits. Official video counts with 78 millions visits at the beginning of April 2011. The special feature of this new singer is that she has received extremely negative reviews. Votes in Youtube show that 189,000 viewers like it, while somo other 1.5 million viewers dislike, almost 90% of negative votes.

Our results indicate that both news about Rebecca Black “Friday” clip and news about the jokes by Gilbert Gottfried receive basically the same profile in terms of bad reputation concerning “Scandal” and “Tragedy” components. Rebecca Black is viewed in a slighly worst image than AFLAC comedian.

All comparisons with other brands in the enterteinment industry with expected negative image show clearly that jokes aired through Twitter are judged really bad by newspapers.

How harmful will be this episode for the global media reputation of AFLAC? AFLAC executives took a bold decisions, firing almost immediately the comedian. In a reputation crisis, how to react concerning the source of the troubles, as well as the timing are always key decisions influencing the evolution of the crisis.

We check first to which extent the jokes scandal has contaminated other decisions taken by AFLAC.

In accordance with its strong presence in Japan, AFLAC was one of the first companies in the United States to commit donations for affected people. A press release was published by March 11, the day the earthquake occurred, reproduced here:

Aflac Pledges 100 Million Yen to Red Cross Disaster Relief for Japan
COLUMBUS, Ga., March 11, 2011 /PRNewswire via COMTEX/ — Aflac has pledged 100 million yen to the Red Cross to assist with their disaster relief efforts in Japan. Aflac is the largest insurer in Japan based on policies in force.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Japanese people during this very difficult time,” Aflac Chairman and CEO Dan Amos said. “We stand ready to assist in the healing process and are pledging these funds to ensure that basic needs are cared for during this crisis.”
Aflac will work with the Red Cross to expedite this contribution.

In the press release announcing that “Aflac Severs Ties with Gilbert Gottfried”, they arlo made reference to past donation. This linkage could affecet negatively the reputation profile of news about support to victims of the disaster. We show now the media reputation of news about the donations made by AFLAC to the victims of the earthquake.

The answer, according to our results, is that media make a clear distinction between the two events and decisions, and news about donations are not associated to scanal, as news about the jokes are indeed. News about donations share basically the same profile that news about AFLAC and the tsunami.

We give a complement of the impact of donations on the media reputation of AFLAC by showing a couple of examples of positive brand vectors. News about donations strongly reinforce the media reputation of AFLAC in two dimensions cherised by this company: “Excellence” and “Commitment”. “How Do we Do Business: From the very beginning of our business, Aflac leaders have worked hard to build a culture of open communication, honesty, integrity and caring customer service. And from the days when three brothers founded Aflac, we’ve approached our shareholders with those same values.” (AFLAC Fact Sheet).

We observe that even of all three group of news depited in the graphs refer to Japan’s disaster, they portray different media reputation: news about AFLAC and the tsunami and about the jokes are poorly associated to “excellence”, while news about donations for victims are strongly associated to all components of “excellence”, like honesty, awareness or Corporate Social Responsibility.

We find a similar pattern regarding “Leadership, Commitment”. Low degree of association with news about the tsunami and jokes, but high when linked to the donations. Stronger association with components inspiring, leadership and awareness.

When AFLAC announced the cessation of relations with Gilbert Gottfried, it also annunced a casting call for the new voice of AFLAC Duck: “Aflac will immediately set plans in motion to conduct a nationwide casting call to find a new voice of the iconic Aflac Duck. It should be noted that Gilbert Gottfried is not the voice of the Aflac Duck in Japan” (AFLAC Press Release March 14, 2011). Was it a correct marketing and branding strategy? There were a clear risk of linkage of the cating call news to the jokes scandal, and that every news about the auditions generate new references to the awful jokes. This could clearly expand in time the negative impact of the jokes on AFLAC reputation.

We compare here the media reputation of news related to the casting in comparison with news about the jokes. Results show clearly that news about the casting are not contaminated at all by the jokes affaire in terms of association with “Scandal”. Franckly speaking, this is a big surprise for us, as our own percpetion was to find the opposite result, and our initial judgement was to consider the nationawide casting as a mistake in terms of branding strategy.

Results concerning “Excellence” confirm again that the casting news are not affected by the negative image generated by Gottfried’s jokes.

Has Gilbert Gottfried killed the Duck?

Immediate reaction to the scandal provoked by Twitter jokes was required by AFLAC staff. Not only because of the massive media impact produced, and not only because Japan is the main market for AFLAC in terms of revenues.

A decide reputational crisis management was needed because AFLAC Duck is apparently one of the main intangible assets of the company. The white duck is not only the conductor of all commercials run by AFLAC: it is part of AFLAC logo, as shown below. It is thus present in all official documents and references to the company.

The crisis generated by Gilbert Gottfried’s jokes could then become not only a short term reputational crisis. It could tarnish the brand perception of AFLAC Duck by the media consumers and all stakeholders.

According to AFLAC sources, “In 1990, Daniel P. Amos was named CEO of Aflac Incorporated. After several unsuccessful attempts to increase Aflac’s brand awareness, on January 1, 2000, Mr. Amos boldly introduced America to the Aflac Duck. A marketing sensation, the Aflac Duck is now a corporate icon holds a place on Madison Avenues Walk of Fame and is part of American pop culture” (AFLAC Corporate Overview).

We indenify now to which extent the current negative news are affecting negatively the media reputation of “AFLAC Duck”. We compare current (March 2011) news about AFLAC Duck against media profile of news about Gottfried jokes, and against media reputation of AFLAC during second half of year 2010.

Our results indicate that AFLAC Duck has not been affected by the jokes, in terms of association to “Scandal” media reputation vector. AFLAC Duck shares the same media recognition than the company news before the scandal of the jokes happened.

The analysis about the media reputation vector “Tragedy” produce the same results and conclusions: the Duck has not been affected by the neagtive image of the jokes.

We check finally one of the positive reputation vectors. We select “Excellent”, as already used to analize the other issues. Once again we find that even in the midst of the flow of negative news about the bad jokes of “the voice of AFLAC Duck”, media reputation of the white duck is resilient and unaffected in negative terms: the Duck is apparently one of AFLAC drivers of brand equity, as it reinforces the association of AFLAC to “excellence”, specially for to key components for this company: honesty and Corporate Social Responsibility.

All these final results tend to clearly state that the Withe Duck is indeed an intangible asset of extraordinary value for AFLAC, that has perfecly survived to the attack of the tasteful jokes by its voice almost since by its inception in the United States advertising strategy. This analysis is also according to us a nice example of the strengths and power of the techniques developped by Media, Reputation and Intangibles center, MRI Universidad de Navarra to assess media reputation of any kind of brands, and to evaluate the impact of events and crisis from very different nature.

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