The humble anas platyrhynchos may be the most beloved of all farmyard fowl (judging by the high proportion of cartoon characters that are anatines), yet there's something about the common duck that registers as oddly incongruous. Ostensibly, ducks are the clowns of the poultry kingdom - observe them waddling along on their flat, oversized feet and they look comical as hell. And yet when a duck gets vocal, its repeated quacking sounds eerily like laughter, and laughter of a particularly mocking and derisive sort at that. Suddenly, the duck becomes less of a clown than a leering voyeur. He comes across as knowing something that you don't. Cartoonist Gary Larson, creator of dark humor comic Far Side, understood this when he coined the term, Anatidaephobia, denoting the fear that somewhere, somehow a duck is watching you. But what of the fear that a duck is following you and looking to embed the names of insurance providers within your impressionable skull? This disturbing conceit formed the basis for a series of ads that began in 1999 and held surprising longevity for the American Family Life Assurance Company (aka Aflac). These involved an increasingly exasperated Pekin duck with a strange knack for showing up wherever unwitting humans were discussing all matters health insurance, with the intention of ensuring that everyone far and wide knew the brand name "Aflac". The ads were created by New York based agency Kaplan Thaler Group, who found their inspiration in the epiphany that saying "Aflac" rapidly and repeatedly has the uncanny effect of making you sound like a duck.
Like the titular bird from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven", the Aflac duck possesses an extremely limited vocabulary, the name of an insurance company being apparently his only stock and store. Also like Poe's raven, his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming, and his raison d'etre is to drive humans to distraction with his ostensibly witless utterances. The twist being that hardly anybody seems to notice him, no matter how loud and obnoxious he is, save a perpetually nonplussed character played by Earl Billings who shows up in a number of ads and alone seems aware of the ubiquitous fowl. The duck acts as the avenging spirit of the unsung insurance firm, targeting those who are indebted to Aflac but haven't done the company the honor of memorizing their brand name.
The duck's abrasive, imposing disposition would undoubtedly have made him more of an irritant, if not for how genuinely unnerving he is in his omnipresence. In one particularly unsettling ad, we see him closing in on a couple in their bedroom as they innocently discuss the prospect of starting a family, oblivious as to what kind of menace is creeping through their private refuge in the dead of night and eying them up as they prepare to get down to the reproductive process. Although the final implication is that they end up adopting the voyeuristic duck as their figurative child; the closing shot shows the three of them lying together in a state of familial bliss. The Aflac duck ends up becoming the symbol of fertility, having facilitated peace of mind for the next generation.
I draw attention to this ad, which has the duck trailing a couple of flight attendants at an airport, because nestled somewhere within my mental storage space is the surreal imagery of a duck tapping frantically at an airplane window during take-off, only I'm fairly certain that it comes from Babe: Pig In The City (1998), and not the Aflac campaign. Someone confirm that I didn't just imagine a scene in which Babe is stalked by Ferdinand from the outside of a plane? I'm positive that the Aflac duck does indeed owe a debt to Ferdinand.
The Aflac duck was originally voiced by comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who had previously carved out a memorable pop culture niche for himself voicing another loud-mouthed avian, Iago the parrot, in Disney's Aladdin (1992) and its assorted spin-offs. Gottfried actually appeared in person, with the duck, in one commercial, in which he tried to return his featured counterpart to a pet store on the grounds that its repeated cries were uneasy on the ears, and wound up trading it in, appropriately, for a more verbose parrot. Aflac later parted ways with Gottfried in 2011, following some insensitive remarks he made in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on his Twitter account (which is the go-to method of career suicide in this day and age), after which Gottfried was replaced by Daniel McKeague.
The duck campaign was successfully transferred to Japan, where Aflac also operates. However, in the UK, where the brand name "Aflac" is basically meaningless, the web-footed wonder never had the chance to shine, although he did have a lesser-known counterpart for a short period - the early 00s, UK healthcare company HSA tried their hand at replicating the success of Aflac's campaign with their own variation on the concept. Hence, UK viewers were baffled with a string of ads in which unsuspecting humans were stalked by a white rabbit who could talk, but apparently only the letters "H, S, A", and only in that order. Why a rabbit? Your guess is as good as mine. The original pun, of the brand name sounding like a duck's quack, obviously had to be sacrificed in translation, but a whole new pun was substituted in its place, in that the rabbit sounded as if he was saying, "Hey, just say", in response to the questions raised by his unwitting targets. Like his anatine counterpart, the luckless leporine was invariably ignored and often wound up on the receiving end of some misfortune. Although initially portrayed by a puppet, later ads had him as a slightly dodgy-looking CGI creation.
While nowhere near as aggressive as the Aflac duck, the HSA rabbit was still a strange beast. Unlike American audiences, however, Brits really didn't go for the joke. Compared to the duck, the HSA rabbit had a fairly short-lived run of it, and his career was marred by controversy when over 80 complaints were made by the public regarding one of the ads, which showed a woman putting the rabbit into a washing machine - a sequence which we all know, in real life, would result in a variation of that scene from Fatal Attraction. Some years ago, I recall reading through an online Ofcom archive (which now looks to have been vaporised) indicating that Ofcom upheld the complaints made against the ad on the grounds that it was shown at a time when it could have been seen by impressionable children.
I can't find the controversial spin commercial, so you'll have to make do with this ad in which the bunny (in his vaguely disturbing CGI rendering) discovers that golfing really isn't his sport.
As I say, the HSA rabbit is long gone. Either he fell back down a hole to Wonderland or had a fatal run-in with another Glenn Close type. The Aflac duck, on the other hand, is still kicking it, and still as loud and abrasive as ever in 2019. So to the policy-conscious, watch your backs, for there may be a Pekin peeking into your privacy. That Gary Larson knew what he was on about.