Social Security Administration Sees Stars

Chubby Checker and Patty Duke promote new government programs.


Chubby Checker, 68, is still doing the twist. His iconic song that topped the charts in the early 1960s continues to be a fixture at wedding receptions and dance halls 50 years later. And now Checker taps his toes and swings his hips in the Social Security Administration's latest promotional video. The advertisement, released in January, promotes a "new twist" in the government program that will help low-income and disabled seniors pay their prescription drug costs. 

Checker is the latest star in a series of celebrity-studded Social Security public service announcements that have come out over the past year, most of which feature actress Patty Duke. Duke reprises her role as look-alike cousins Cathy and Patty Lane from the 1960s sitcom The Patty Duke Show in commercials encouraging baby boomers to sign up online for Social Security. 

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When the first Duke ad hit the air in January 2009, online applications for Social Security benefits surged. Twenty-six percent of retirement applications were submitted online the month before the celebrity ad campaigns began; within 30 days of the Duke spot, online applications rose to 35 percent and never went back down. Now 37 percent of retirees apply for benefits online. "We credit the increase to the Patty Duke campaign," says Jim Courtney, SSA deputy commissioner for communications. "I think it's a successful formula." Online applications help the SSA process claims faster and reduce wait times in field offices. 

The advertisements play on the oldest baby boomer's nostalgia for their youth. The Patty Duke Show ran from and 1963 through 1966, a time when the oldest baby boomers were teenagers. And Checker's song, "The Twist," hit No. 1 on Billboard's charts for the first time in 1960. "If you put people in kind of a nostalgic mood, their response to an advertisement will be much more receptive to it," says David Sprott, at marketing professor at Washington State University in Pullman. "Chubby Checker kind of takes you back to this younger, better time. You start to think, 'That old guy can still dance and sing, and maybe I can too.' " 

[See Chubby Checker's Twist Turns 50.] 

Consumers form lifelong attachments to the styles of popular music and the movie stars they encountered in their teens and early 20s, according to researchers at Rutgers University and Columbia University. "The period of our youth is when music plays a very big part in our emotional life," says Robert Schindler, a Rutgers University marketing professor. "Having the music playing sort of warms your feelings and tends to lead people to be more predisposed to the message." The peak preference is age 24 for music recordings and 14 for movie stars, Schindler found. "The early '60s is when we baby boomer were kids, and Chubby Checker's music kind of makes us happy," says Chuck Nyren, author of Advertising to Baby Boomers. "The message is simple and straightforward and kind of cute." 

But detractors say that viewers pay attention to how gracefully Duke and Checker have aged but may fail to absorb the message that SSA is trying to impart. "The celebrity persona can overwhelm the message," says Brent Green, author of Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers: Perceptions, Principles, Practices, and Predictions. "Viewers pay attention to him, nostalgically recalling when they first learned the twist, and then the commercial has concluded and the message has not been effectively delivered." 

[See Patty Duke Show Reunion Planned.] 

Neither Duke nor Checker was paid by the Social Security Administration for their endorsements. The scripts were written in-house by existing SSA employees, and some lines were contributed by Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue. No television time was purchased to run the ads, which aired more than 25,000 times on TV stations. The SSA estimates that the free airtime the commercials were given would cost $14 million to purchase. A production company was hired through a government contract to shoot and edit the announcements.