The Sell-ebrity: How Celebrity Endorsements Boost the Insurance Industry

by on Nov 23, 2015


Roughly a century before Alex Trebek explained the jeopardy one faces without Colonial Penn Life Insurance, Travelers Life and Accident Insurance made the rounds with perhaps the most famous insurance spokesmen you’ve never heard of – Abraham Lincoln.


Travelers Insurance Union Commanders Advertisement circa 1884 (Image Source: Library of Congress)

A recent NPR investigation has turned up a promotional photo featuring a late-19th-century meeting of Union commander minds. In it, the 16th president sits center stage in the company of Adm. David G. Farrugut and Gens. William T. Sherman, George Henry Thomas, George Gordon Meade, Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph Hooker, Philip Henry Sheridan and Winfield Scott Hancock. “With compliments,” the photo inscription reads, “of the Travelers Insurance Company,” copyright 1884.

The catch? At the time, five of the men in the photo were no longer living, including Lincoln, who had died 19 years before, making this what may be the earliest instance of misleading Photoshop in advertising history.

In an interview with NPR, Travelers Director of Records and Information Management Mary Beth Davidson reveals this cut-and-paste job, along with its Southern commander counterpart, was constructed “for advertising purposes and given to our agents for display or distribution to customers.”

The success of the campaign, Davidson said, led to follow-up photo composites of famous American authors, eminent women and famous editors, which were given out like today’s insurance agents might hand out complimentary branded hand sanitizers or stress balls.

“What did Civil War leaders have to do with buying or selling insurance?” NPR’s History Department wonders of the images. “Was it assurance by association…Was it a warning the world can be a warlike place? Or was it simply a reminder that things are not always as they appear to be?”

That first conjecture – assurance by association – may come the closest to the truth.

Celebrity endorsements, whether implicit a la Lincoln and his commanders or explicit like Alex Trebek, are nothing new. Researchers trace the practice as far back as the 1760s, when Josiah Wedgwood sought the royal stamp of approval for his pottery and china. Since then, everyone from Babe Ruth to Shaquille O’Neal has been featured on a Wheaties box.

But, the question remains, why? What does one gain from knowing that Shaq munches on breakfast cereal or that Lincoln might have supported Travelers had he not been in the ground almost two decades?

As anyone who’s fought for the sweat-drenched t-shirt flung from the stage of a concert knows, there’s an undeniable allure to interacting with the same products as the rich and famous. Researchers at Yale University have even studied this contamination phenomenon, the superstition that touching a waffle Madonna once bit will bestow upon us whatever ineffable quality makes her shine. The more an object is handled by a famous person generally held in a positive light, the study found, the more consumers are willing to pay for it.

In more concrete terms, researchers at Harvard Business School and Barclays Capital have found celebrity endorsements can provide a 4% bump in a company’s sales – or about $10 million in additional sales annually.

While even today the field of celebrity endorsements remains comparatively under-researched, these findings nevertheless provide context for the Travelers Lincoln photo campaign:

Consumers yearn to touch greatness, whether it’s through brushing up against an image on a cereal box or receiving a simple photo from an insurance agent at a time when the technology itself was cost-prohibitive for all but the most special occasions. Today, an estimated $50 billion is poured into corporate sponsorships and endorsements around the world, and in addition to an increase in sales, a good celebrity endorsement can bump stock returns .25%, according to the HBS and Barclays study.

Travelers knew then what advertisers the world over know now: celebrity sells.