“For God’s sake, sex and auto-insurance are not two things that go together.”
~ Kristin Brewe, creator of Erin Esurance
If you watched TV in the mid-2000s, you probably saw Erin Esurance.
Fitted in a leather catsuit and sporting a spunky pink haircut, the 2D-animated secret agent navigated her way through a variety of 30-second national commercial spots. The face of insurance start-up Esurance, she battled giant robots (who represented “overpriced competitors”), scaled her way up buildings, and occasionally took showers on screen for no apparent reason.
Designed to be hip, exciting, and fast-paced, Erin stood for everything Esurance believed in. She was not only the company’s answer to Geico’s ubiquitous gecko, but a formidable marketing tool for recruiting their intended demographic — 18 to 24 year-old males — into insurance policies.
Unfortunately, that demographic liked Erin so much that they made porn of her. Lots of porn. So much porn that, at the height of the mascot’s popularity, 9 of the top 10 image results in an unfiltered Google search for “Erin Esurance” ended up being these amatuer artists’ racy renderings.
Through interviews with her creator and animators, as well as several people who made her into porn, we’ve recounted the untold story of Erin Esurance. What lies ahead is a cautionary tale about what can happen to a corporate mascot when it is released into the wild free-for-all of the digital tundra.
The Innocent Birth of Erin Esurance
The voice actress of Erin Esurance poses with a cardboard cutout of the character
Launched in 1999, Esurance was touted as an early pioneer of online auto insurance.
At the time, big insurance companies required an in-person meeting or phone call to set up a new policy; by leveraging the newfound powers of the Internet, Esurance promised to expedite and simplify this process. Early on, the company’s marketing department established that those most likely to buy insurance online were males between the ages of 18 and 24.
After five years of solid growth, Esurance’s board of directors decided it was time to create a corporate mascot and launch a television advertising campaign targeting this demographic. To complete this task, they turned to Kristin Brewe, the company’s Director of Brand & Public Relations — a young, energetic woman intensely interested in consumer behavior.
“The first thing I had to do,” Brewe tells us over the phone, “was attempt to understand 18 to 24 year-old men a bit better.” So, she took to gaming forums:
“I dove into ethnographic research. I knew they were into gaming, so I went to go hang out on fan sites and public forums, looking out for what people liked, and what they were looking at. It sounds creepy now that I say it, but I was just trying to understand them better.”
Brewe noticed that one figure in particular was massively popular: CIA agent Sydney Bristow, the main character from the television show Alias. Rocking red hair and tight black outfit, she held a position of great reverence with the demographic Brewe was going after.
Jennifer Garner as CIA agent Sydney Bristow in the television show ‘Alias’ (2001-2006)
“I went outside, looked out at the ocean, and thought, ‘She’s everything our demographic would want,’” says Brewe. “I needed an [animated] character that was fast-paced, action-oriented, and female.”
To create its mascot and TV campaign, Esurance had a budget of $60,000 — this, at a time when Geico and Progressive (their main competitors) were spending about $1 billion each on advertising alone. So, Brewe turned to W!ldbrain, a small, local animation studio, to help bring her concept to life.
Working off of Brewe’s suggestions, three male animators in their mid-20s and early 30s (Phil Robinson, Alan Lau, and Roque Ballesteros) designed a spunky, kick-ass, pink-haired secret agent, and named her Erin Esurance.
Early on, aesthetic questions arose in the design department: Was she too sexy? Was her outfit too scandalous? Were her “attributes” too generously proportioned? She went through a series of iterations, and ultimately, the team came up with a character design they felt best represented the excitement and energy of the company.
“We always joke that Erin got a little bit of botox along the way,” Alan Lau, one of her original animators, tells us. “We gave her small adjustments to make her look more appealing: bigger eyes, a lower hairline, a smaller chin. It was a part of the natural design process — every animated character changes a bit over time (even the Simpsons).”
Brewe insists that “using sex to sell” was never Esurance’s intent: “We just wanted to make an exciting, entertaining female heroine,” she says. “For God’s sake, sex and auto-insurance are not two things that go together.”
In July of 2004, Erin Esurance made her much-anticipated television debut — a test spot in the Sacramento, California region. For 30 seconds, the two-dimensional secret agent leapt from city rooftops, warded off bad guys, and subtly touted the benefits of switching insurance policies. And for a brief moment in time, she was a perfect embodiment of everything the company wanted to stand for: agility, justice, wholesomeness. Fan letters poured in from young girls and their fathers, who were happy to see a powerful female role model on television.
Erin Esurance was a big success — so much so, that over the ensuing 5 years, more than 30 additional commercial spots featuring her were produced. Riding her coattails, Esurance rose from 0% brand awareness to one of the most-recognized insurance companies in the world. She became an iconic mascot and, inadvertently, a sex symbol for certain young men on the Internet. Sensing this, Brewe purchased airtime on “guy-heavy” outlets — ESPN, SciFi, and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
But in the dark crevices of the Internet, something else was brewing: without warning, Erin Esurance became masturbation fodder for the very demographic she was designed to target.
Erin Esurance Gets Rule 34’d
There is an age-old decree that exists on the Internet called Rule 34: “If it exists, there is porn of it.” Erin Esurance was no exception to this.
Within 24 hours of the cartoon’s television commercial debut, the first nude drawing of her hit the Internet. In underground “adult art” circles, the pink-haired vixen quickly became the new, exciting ‘toon on the block.
Over the next five years, the market for lewd artistic renditions of Erin grew in tandem with her commercial ubiquity. DeviantArt and other online art hubs became something of a stomping grounds for peddlers of cartoon porn, and many artists made a healthy supplemental income by selling Erin Esurance drawings through various platforms.
“I first saw her in an [Esurance] commercial where she was in a wrestling ring, fighting some dude,” one artist, who wished to remain anonymous, tells us. “She was wearing these tiny, tight white shorts and top — her [breasts] were bursting out — and I just thought, ‘Damn, that is one fine toon!’”
The commercial inspired this particular gentleman to create a series of 15 “extremely NSFW” Erin Esurance paintings, which he later sold for up to $120 through Paheal.net, a “giant, searchable archive” of cartoon porn. (Here, cartoons live out their secret second lives: thousands of characters, ranging from My Little Pony to Aladdin, indulge in an array of carnal pleasures.)
One of the tamer adult art offerings of Erin Esurance (via Paheal.net, Pixal TriX)
More adult fan art (via Pahael)
Another artist, “Pixal TriX”, says he also had luck selling Erin Esurance pieces — particularly to “horny heterosexual guys” in their 20s. “Dudes jus' wanna see T&A on their favorite cartoon relics,” he writes us in an email. “And Erin had quite a niche following.”
A keyword scan of Paheal turns up more than 270 incriminating images of Erin Esurance, ranging from nude poses to mildly alarming acts of toon-on-toon copulance. DeviantArt, which hosts its own community of adult artists, returns 476 similar results. The vast majority of these images were posted between 2007 and 2009, at the peak of the Erin Esurance’s popularity.
By 2007, Internet forums were abuzz with Erin Esurance porn talk. “I’m sure the majority of you have seen...that chick Erin Esurance,” wrote one forum user in 2007. “I would totally hit that. Thoughts? Opinions?”
There were many:
Forum members on Bluelight discuss their desire to “hit that” in a 2007 conversation about Erin Esurance
Comments on an Erin Esurance YouTube video (2007)
For “Andy”, a man in his mid-30s from the Idaho panhandle, these admirers provided a stream of revenue when he needed it most.
After losing his collision repair business in the recession of 2008, Andy took on various odd jobs, but still found himself $200 short of his monthly bills. To make ends meet, he resorted to an old hobby: drawing sexy cartoon characters. “I was a crappy artist, but one thing you can do to bypass that is to draw things naked,” he tells us. “It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s true.”
Andy realized he could pump out these naked cartoon drawings quickly, then sell them for $5 to $10 each on eBay. In 2009, his big break came: after posting a “lesbian bondage scene” of Erin Esurance to his website, a floodgate of commissioned requests came in. “People just kept contacting me repeatedly, [demanding] Erin Esurance,” he says. “I sold 6 or 7 of them for $40 a piece, and was able to pay my bills for a few months.”
Then, something truly extraordinary happened: Andy’s dirty drawings of Erin gained so much traction on the Internet that they overtook Esurance’s original campaign in Google’s search results. “At the time, if you did an [unfiltered] image search for ‘Erin Esurance’, 9 of the top 10 images were nudes,” he says. “And the worst ones — the truly startling ones — were all mine.”
Goodnight, Sweet Erin
In June of 2010, at the crescendo of Erin’s pin-up popularity, Esurance randomly announced that it was killing her off.
“We’ve leveraged great brand equity in Erin over the years," Esurance’s President and CEO, Gary Tolman, said in a press release, “and she’s played a significant role in making us the third-most shopped auto insurance brand among online consumers.”
According to Kristin Brewe, the mascot’s demise was the result of a few converging reasons.
“After 5 years, Erin had lived a great life, but our target market had shifted,” she says. “She was also starting to die off a bit, and then all that was left was the porn.”
While the porn community was head over heels for Erin, polls conducted in late 2009 indicated that the general public were fed up with her. Gauged with other popular corporate mascots, she fared poorly in a personality test: 30% of consumers found her to be “annoying” (nearly double the industry average), and she fell far shy of the industry averages for “believable”, “funny”, and “sincere.” She did, however, score a 19% in the “sexy” category — 19x the industry average.
Based on the responses of 1,500 consumers aged 13-49 (E-Poll Market Research)
When we contacted Esurance, asking whether the promulgation of porn affected their decision to discontinue Erin, a spokesperson declined to comment. But given the gravity and scope of Erin Esurance porn at the time, it is not unreasonable to surmise that her “death” was related. At least, that’s what Andy, the aforementioned artist, believes.
“It all felt wrong to me,” he says, with regret in his voice. “I was making money off of someone else’s efforts, someone else’s intellectual property. Someone spent so much time making her, and I came along, like an idiot, and killed her off with my $40 drawings. It had to be because of the porn.”
“If the person who actually invented Erin wants to punch me in the face,” he adds wistfully, “I wouldn’t blame her one bit.”
Wrestling With the Pigs
Today, Kristin Brewe runs her own brand consultancy in London. Looking back, she doesn’t harbor any animosity for the artists who stripped down Erin Esurance — her creation. In Brewe’s opinion, protecting a brand from public manipulation simply isn’t possible in the digital world:
“People are going to do what they do. If you make a corporate icon that interacts with people, it isn’t a one-way street anymore. This is the nature of two-way communication: people are creators in and of themselves. As an advertiser, you’ve got to be cool with that. It’s going to happen. You can’t stop to co-creation of a brand, and you might not like that co-creation.”
In a strange way, Brewe sees Erin Esurance’s foray into the adult art world as part of a positive feedback loop: “As a brand manager, you’re kind of content when weird things happen,” she admits. “We thought, ‘Wow, we’re making a crazy impact on culture if we’re being embraced by different people,” corroborates Alan Lau, one of her animators. “It was an acknowledgement of our artwork.”
This isn’t to say Erin’s creators don’t have problems with the porn — particularly the gender issues it arouses. “When you’re in a board room designing a corporate mascot, gender is always a part of the conversation,” Brewe says. “And that conversation always goes, ‘Do we make the zebra a woman or a man? Let’s make it a man, because there won’t be as much porn of it.’”
“It’s disheartening that we have to have this conversation,” she adds, “and you don’t want to give in, because then, you’d only see male or genderless figures in advertising.”
For these reasons, Brewe ultimately decided it was best to let the Internet take its course, even if that meant violating her brainchild.
“There were definitely times when the porn bothered me,” admits Brewe. “But it’s like my grandmother used to say: ‘Never mud wrestle with a pig; you get dirty and the pig loves it.’”