Aflac launches March Madness ‘Pre-pain show’ with Wanda Sykes and Lil Rel Howery

Aflac’s ad campaign brings levity to the unpredictability of life, while also promoting colon cancer awareness and extending Aflac’s ‘Close the Gap’ initiative, which helps Americans who are inundated with medical debt.

A simple whack at a piñata at a children’s party can change someone’s life – especially if it results in an unexpected and costly injury.

This is the theme of Aflac’s new ‘Pre-pain show’ ads kicking off before the start of March Madness. Aflac, an official partner of the NCAA, has tapped actors and comedians Wanda Sykes and Lil Rel Howery (alongside the Aflac duck, of course) to educate us about how Aflac can protect us from financial ruin when unexpected injuries occur.

The ‘Pre-pain show’ has a professional sports theme, which meshes nicely with March Madness. But rather than watching college athletes score three-pointers, our announcers call the shots as ordinary people suddenly find themselves in situations that will very quickly produce both severe pain and substantial medical bills. In its ‘Piñat-ah!’ ad, a man is standing off to the side at a child’s birthday party, gazing happily at his phone, when a child taking a swing at a piñata lets go of the wooden baseball bat. It swings forcefully in the man’s direction, and he sees it just microseconds before it collides with his teeth. The man and the baseball bat both freeze. That’s when Sykes and Howery literally slide into view behind their oversized announcers’ desk. They proceed to speculate about the gruesome scene that’s about to unfold, and also to describe how Aflac will help to cover the man’s medical bills (probably from dental reconstruction surgery).

Aflac launched a similar ad campaign during last year’s March Madness, with two major differences: it was the ‘Post-pain show’ (meaning that the announcers provided commentary immediately after someone had suffered an injury), and the announcers were played by Howery and actor Rob Riggle.

Sykes explained in a statement why she was happy to join the effort: “Medical debt, health and wealth disparities don’t discriminate. Many Americans are one step away from a medical incident that could easily lead to financial ruin. I am proud to partner with Aflac to shine a light on critical issues impacting communities across this country – and to serve as Aflac’s first LGBTQ+ woman of color to anchor a national campaign. The ‘Pre-pain show’ represents a step forward in the movement to see all of the communities Aflac serves.”

Both the 2021 and 2022 campaigns highlight a perennial marketing challenge for insurance companies: bringing humor to a subject that’s inherently stressful to think about – namely, the very real possibility that a major accident could suddenly affect us, our loved ones or our most valuable property. Many insurance companies take what is arguably the easy way through by activating the fear center of your brain – showing you a distressing scene of a car accident, say, accompanied with a fearful musical score. In this campaign, and in its broader marketing strategy as a whole, Aflac has usually gone for laughs – “hey, we’re all clumsy, shit happens.”

But the new campaign isn’t all about comedy. March also happens to be Colon Cancer Awareness Month, so the campaign will feature a series of public service announcements from Howery, called ‘That’s Rel Talk,’ about the dangers of colon cancer. And in its communications about the new ads, Aflac has also called attention to the fact that African Americans, compared with other ethnic groups, face a significantly higher risk of dying from colon cancer.

The new campaign is also an extension of Aflac’s ‘Close the gap’ initiative, which launched in January of this year and is “designed to not only provide immediate financial support to individuals and communities in need but also ... to help educate consumers and advocate for closing the gap in what health insurance doesn’t cover,” Aflac’s chief brand and marketing officer Shannon Watkins said in a statement.

Watkins says that the new campaign will continue to push the ‘Close the gap’ initiative forward by “[shining] a light on the health and wealth gaps that exist across our country and [showing] Aflac’s commitment to help close the gap in the communities we serve on and off the court.”

The ‘Pre-pain show’ ads will be rolled out across digital, social and TV. The brand will also host on-site activations at key March Madness games.

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