PR > Techniques


AFLAC, Columbus / AFLAC / 2019


Silver Cannes Lions
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Why is this work relevant for PR?

Eleven inches tall and sporting white feathers, Aflac’s latest innovation isn’t meant to sell insurance. It’s not even for sale.

It’s a social robot designed to comfort children with cancer, part of the company’s 23-year commitment to the childhood cancer cause. Aflac’s invention redefines the role of brand mascots as a force for good, while pushing the boundaries of PR and branded communications through technology.

Aflac’s disruptive technology gained massive worldwide attention and is already promoting greater wellbeing, comfort, and joy for many of the 15,000 U.S. children newly-diagnosed with cancer each year.


After investing 23 years and $123 million in support of the childhood cancer cause, Aflac realized the field was ripe for innovation. With children surviving longer, research revealed an unmet need for emotional support alongside medicine to cope with cancer treatment, which averages 1,000 days.

Technology could provide a high-impact, cost-effective innovation in emotional care, one easily scalable nationwide. Attracting attention to the gut-wrenching cause also required an uplifting, tangible idea – one embodying Aflac’s brand archetype of caring innovation. The brief also required an innovation that would be ownable, brand-aligned, scalable, evergreen and relevant nationwide.

PR objectives:

- Engage key audiences;

- Enhance Aflac’s reputation;

- Associate the brand with innovation;

- Measurably support children facing childhood cancer; and

- Position Aflac as a leading voice in a national conversation building support for the cause.

Describe the creative idea

Childhood cancer patients face an average 1,000 days of treatment – and lasting physical and emotional impacts. They need more than medicine. Studies show play is invaluable for ill children, who often act out their treatment with toys, gaining familiarity with stressful regimens and a sense of control.

My Special Aflac Duck is an experience, not a toy; an innovative social robot modeled on Aflac’s brand icon. With four patents pending, it facilitates nurturing medical play: users feed, bathe, administer treatments to, and use breathing exercises to calm their duck. It features lifelike movement (nuzzling, breathing, moving to music), emotions (tap emoji cards to the duck and it expresses the feeling), medical accessories, and a mixed-reality app that encourages children to play and communicate.

This CSR innovation is tangible, emotionally compelling, ownable, brand-aligned, scalable and relevant nationwide. Aflac aims to donate one to every U.S. childhood cancer patient, aged 3+.

Describe the PR strategy

Insight: Interest would be generated entirely through PR (there was no advertising behind the program), so a successful unveiling – in an unexpected context at the Consumer Electronics Show – was key. Securing an Associated Press story the day prior to launch delivered advance exposure, drawing crowds and media attention, leading to 2 billion+ earned media impressions at CES. Duck delivery events at hospitals nationwide and a robust social media, awards, and speaking program continues to drive a steady drumbeat of media attention throughout 2018 and 2019.

Key Message: Aflac believes children need more than medicine to cope with cancer.

Target Audience: Healthcare providers and medical community, advocacy groups, childhood cancer associations and patients, employees and the general public.

Additional assets: Video, events and even duck-shaped searchlights over cities nationwide.

The PR plan: Put children, the duck and its inventors at the center, then engage experts for credibility and reach.

Describe the PR execution

My Special Aflac Duck quacks for itself. Its innovative technology, thoughtful child-centered design, clear expression of Aflac’s brand and donation component made My Special Aflac Duck newsworthy. So, PR focused on building the robot’s credibility as a tool used during cancer treatments – not a toy.

To spotlight patent-pending technology, we started at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, winning Tech for a Better World and Most Unexpected Product awards.

A strategic, year-long PR campaign built nationwide momentum:

- Conducted demos for media, pediatric cancer experts, issue influencers;

- Commissioned a medical impact study at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta;

- Created a short film demonstrating My Special Aflac Duck’s impact on children;

- Presented at health, technology and CSR conferences – e.g., Association of Child Life Professionals Conference, Social Innovation Summit, WSJ Future of Everything;

- Partnered with Children’s Oncology Group, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, and others to amplify reach.

List the results

Media outputs:

- 2.5 billion media impressions;

- 794 earned stories;

- 27 awards, including 2018 Time Magazine Best Invention.

Target audience:

- 3,100+ ducks ordered; 143 hospitals covering 88% of U.S.

Medical impact:

- 69% children reported reduced stress.

- 82% parents recommend: “[It]...made him feel he had a buddy going through the same thing...As a parent, that’s invaluable.”

Business outcomes:

- 14% national awareness of My Special Aflac Duck; propensity to buy products up 11%.

- Corresponding 3.2% sales lift to $1.6 billion.

- In-house survey revealed 86% of employees are proud Aflac is a caring company.

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