The Season of Advent

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To listen to today’s reflection as a podcast, click here
The world of insurance can sure seem dreary.
People rarely wake up thinking, “Today’s the day I get to sign my policy!”  On a planet that is rife with risks and uncertainties, buying insurance isn’t a get-to.  It’s a have-to – an obligation that reminds us that life doesn’t always unfold as we might hope – not to mention the hard stop coming at the end. 
For most of the 20th century, TV ads for insurance companies were predictably solemn.  “Get a piece of the rock,” intoned the voice urging us to buy this-world security from Prudential.
These days, however, insurance ads seem a lot more like 30-second comedy sketches populated by talking animals and quirky spokespersons.  All of a sudden, insurance is fun. 
There’s Flo and her team from Progressive, all dressed for some reason in white overalls.  Doug and his sidekick, Limu the Emu, endlessly hawk Liberty, Liberty, Liberty Mutual.  Jake from State Farm hangs out with NFL quarterbacks and Taylor Swift’s current boyfriend.  The GEICO Gecko, in his latest commercial, calmly resolves an intergalactic crisis.  Allstate alerts us to the ever-present danger of the guy who introduces himself as “mayhem, like me.” 
Industry experts generally agree that this trend was launched about 25 years ago by a relatively unknown corporation specializing in supplemental and payroll deduction insurance.
The problem for the Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus (that would be Columbus, Georgia) is that virtually no one could remember their name.  They set out to change that in 1990 by choosing to identify themselves (unwisely, many said) by their initials: AFLAC.   
But how in the world do you build brand awareness around five letters that don’t mean anything?
That was the job of the Kaplan Thayer Group, an advertising agency based in New York City.  After fruitless hours of brainstorming, one of the KTG team members decided to take a stroll in nearby Central Park.
He found himself uttering “AFLAC, AFLAC,” hoping inspiration might strike.  And suddenly it came to him.  He sounded just like a duck.
At first, according to AFLAC’s CEO Dan Amos, the company brass was skeptical of entrusting its public image to a squawking duck.  “We knew we were making fun of our name and we were not sure how that would turn out.  Nobody was doing humor in financial services to a great degree.  There was a dead look on everyone’s faces when we first showed it.”
Then he adds, “But everyone gets it now.”
That’s for sure.  The first AFLAC duck commercial aired on New Year’s Day 2000.  The duck has now shown up in more than 75 TV spots with the likes of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, NASCAR drivers, Bugs Bunny, and even Melania Trump before she married Donald.   
AFLAC’s brand recognition soared from 11% to 94%.  The company now owns one of the most celebrated corporate identities in the world.
AFLAC has generously leveraged its visibility into charitable action.  Amos points out that the company has raised more than $145 million for pediatric cancer charities, all through the sale of stuffed plush ducks.  An interactive robot version of the toy duck, which won Best in Show at the Consumer Electronics convention, is donated to kids who are diagnosed with cancer. 
“I never really dreamed I would bet my whole career on a duck,” says Amos, “but that’s the way it turned out.” By way of response, you can almost hear a resounding quack: “AFLAC!” 
Which brings us to another “A” word that has left a number of people scratching their heads:  Advent.
Advent is the “season” on the church calendar that annually encompasses the four Sundays before Christmas (this year that would be December 3, 10, 17, and Christmas Eve).
Advent derives from the Latin word adventum, which means “coming.”  Every year followers of Jesus are encouraged to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ coming into the world at Bethlehem.
Which is incredibly challenging, when you think about it.  That’s because the word Christmas has a lot of baggage associated with it:  Black Friday shopping mayhem, Yukon Cornelius (“Bumbles bounce!”), colored lights, fruitcake, Elf on the Shelf, Hallmark Channel holiday movies (40 new ones just this year), Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing The Little Drummer Boy, and a Lexus with a big red bow sitting in your driveway. 
What does all of that have to do with Advent?  Not very much.
Advent doesn’t have an advertising team working to come up with catchy slogans or characters.  It isn’t brash or noisy.  Its greatest asset, in fact, is its silence. 
During Advent we quietly ponder the imponderable: that for our sakes God chose to become a human being.
That, in fact, is a simple and effective way to experience a different kind of Christmas this year:  Each day this Advent season, stop for five minutes.  Do nothing.  Just be.  If you’re reading the Gospels between now and the end of the year, you might make this part of your time alone with God.  Gently and quietly, ask the Lord to remind you of who he is and what he has done.
By God’s grace, we can let the quietness of such reflection drive some of December’s non-stop frenzy out of our lives.
Which means that we and the AFLAC duck actually have the same goal leading up to December 25:
We don’t want to allow ourselves to become so cooked that we end up starring in the final scene with Ralphie’s family in A Christmas Story.