What is a University of Farmers?

April 29, 2016

The University of Farmers isn’t the institution of higher learning you may remember from your college days, which is probably fortunate. Stressed-out finals and those regular student loan payments ensure that college memories aren’t always happy ones. Yet somehow, Farmers Insurance’s “University of Farmers” advertising campaign makes us laugh, not break out into a cold sweat.

The original University of Farmers ads were about the actual, physical University, and the training program all Farmers agents must complete to work for the company. The purpose of the ad – and its associated interactive website – was to remind consumers that a well-educated insurance agent is your strongest ally in an often-complex process of choosing a policy. Our guide through the website was the actor J.K. Simmons, who played the calm and informative Professor Nathaniel Burke. The physical University of Farmers is located in sunny Agoura, California, and it does not appear that they offer tours of their facility, nor does Simmons actually works there.

The original website was produced in 2010 by Shadow Machine (you may know them as the studio behind Robot Chicken) and is now defunct.  What isn’t defunct is the idea that education is key in happy clients.  While they are still educating their agents at the University, their ads document the education of its policyholders, rather than its agents.  They have continued their partnership with Simmons to success, emphasizing the importance of learning through hands-on experiences. (Or, in this case, amusing commercials.)

If J.K. Simmons looks vaguely familiar to you, that’s because he’s one of those actors who has appeared in a huge variety of programs without much fanfare.  He played the snarky newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in several iterations of Marvel’s “Spiderman”; the sassy but supportive father in “Juno”; and the dry and professional Emil Skoda in several seasons of “Law & Order.”  Finally, if you close your eyes when he’s talking you may get an inexplicable craving for chocolate – that’s because he also voices the Yellow (Peanut) M&M in their television ads.  It doesn’t appear that Simmons has ever played a character that isn’t at least a little bit wry.  This serves him well in his University of Famers professorship, since most of what he encounters is slightly absurd.

Professor Burke is an unflappable figure in the face of the unexpected. Although to him, very little is truly unexpected. He is the disseminator of useful facts to protect against hazards you may never have thought of. Did you know that washing machine hoses should be replaced every five years? Or that posting your travel plans on social media alerts thieves to the fact that you’re out of town? Or that your policy may not cover you against damage caused by uninsured drivers? (Or robots?)

Professor Burke knows these things, and he wants you to know too.

The University of Farmers concept was a departure from the “True Stories” ads the company ran through 2010.  Although heartfelt, those ads didn’t play well in the new world of character-driven insurance ads.  The breezy, cheerful figure of Professor Burke appears to resonate with more customers, and the campaign continues to grow.  In late 2013, Farmers released a series of videos called “15 Seconds to Be Smart” via Twitter. These bite-sized videos each impart a single useful tip about home or auto safety, using a variety of action and animation styles. Despite the apparent success of these 15-minute Twitter advertisements, Professor Burke otherwise has zero social media presence. Unlike other character-based advertising campaigns (Mayhem, Flo, the Gecko, etc), Farmers has neither a Facebook nor Twitter account for its spokes-professor. Even J.K. Simmons himself doesn’t appear to have a Facebook Fan page or Twitter account.

Perhaps the air of mystery surrounding him helps in his message. He doesn’t need social media; he just needs to teach you about insurance. Professor Burke is familiar in a comforting way, and his unflappable demeanor and precision timing in every situation is reassuring to those of us who are just now learning exactly how much we don’t know.

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