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Priceline Negotiator Returns! Which Other Ad Pitchmen Will Live Forever?

The Exchange

William Shatner fans rejoice. After suffering a violent death in January, Priceline's (PCLN) beloved ad pitchman, the Negotiator, was resurrected this week.

In a press release the company announced that "after plunging off a bridge to his presumed demise, the Priceline Negotiator, aka William Shatner, has miraculously been found alive in a new priceline.com TV spot."

In the 30-second spot, which debuted Thursday, a priceline.com agent finds him on a beach, suit pants rolled up, holding a surfboard. He tells Shatner his mission isn't over. "Surfing is my life now," Shatner responds and works in the company plug — "even faster and easier ways to save you money on hotels, flights and cars" — before running off to catch massive a wave.

Why did the discount travel company ever get rid of one of the most successful spokesmen in the history of advertising? According to an Ad Age article from January, Shatner, 81, was very closely tied to the Negotiator in viewers' minds, and the company wanted to shift focus from the name-your-own-price model to a fixed-price one. Shatner served as pitchman for six years and has appeared in Priceline spots for 14 years. (See Daily Ticker's video: Priceline Kills Off 'The Negotiator': William Shatner in 'Grief Mode,' but $600M Richer.)

The Importance of Icons

The reappearance illustrates the importance of the company spokesperson. Whether they use celebrities, cartoon characters, talking animals or their own CEOs, companies know a likable spokesperson translates to positive brand awareness.

Progressive's Flo, the Geico Gecko, the Allstate Mayhem Man, talking M&M's. These offbeat (some might argue annoying) brand personalities are essential to corporate marketing strategies. They serve to grab consumers' attention and change the way people think about the brand, says Ken Wilbur, an assistant professor of marketing at Duke's Fuqua School of Business. Insurance companies in particular have been mining the quirky character vein in their commercials over the past few years. Car insurance, after all, isn't synonymous with fun — or even a tangible product for that matter — so they have to capture viewers' attention somehow.

How does Shatner stack up against other famous ad pitchmen? We took a look at some other notable spokescharacters who have been interrupting your TV shows to find out how people feel about them. We used E-Poll Market Research, a firm that measures consumer sentiment of corporate characters and celebrities, to get the numbers. (They're in order of most likable to least.)

Talking M&Ms

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Ms. Brown was introduced to the world during the 2012 Super Bowl as the sixth animated spokescandy in the M&M lineup. Like her green, red, yellow, blue and orange colleagues, she's got a distinct look and personality — she's witty and wears glasses and high heels!

In terms of positive brand awareness, you can't do better than the talking M&M's. They've got the highest product character Q Score, which is a measurement of the familiarity and appeal of a brand, company or celebrity. "They're the high-water mark," says Henry Schafer, executive vice president of the Q Scores Company. "The product is highly appealing; it cuts across every demographic segment and it has that universal transcendent appeal."

E-Score: 62% awareness, 66% appeal, 3% dislike

(E-Poll says the average corporate character has a 28% awareness, 37% appeal and 10% dislike score. The film personality and actor average has a 23% awareness and 54% appeal.)

E-Trade Baby

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If you've watched the Super Bowl in the past four years, no doubt you noticed a preternaturally chatty infant with a flair for investing. A hybrid of adorable, hilarious and  creepy, the talking E-Trade (ETFC)baby has become a phenomenon. In a recent spot the baby, voiced by comedian Pete Holmes, reassures a new father in a maternity ward about his baby's future.

E-Score: 26% awareness, 58% appeal, 12% dislike

William Shatner as the Priceline Negotiator

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Whether the company realized its mistake or it was part of a grand plan all along, Priceline says the fans missed Shatner's pitchman. In a survey of customers, the company found  94% said they missed The Negotiator and would like to see him again. It's also worth noting that the day Priceline announced Shatner's return, the company's stock price rose 1.8%. (See our past Exchange piece on Priceline's stock).

As the Priceline Negotiator, Shatner doesn't notch stellar marks in terms of awareness and appeal (23% of survey respondents were familiar with him, while 37% rated him positively). But as Shatner the film and TV actor, he fares well.

E-Score: 71% awareness, 52% appeal, 5% dislike

'Flo' from Progressive

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The perky Flo, played by actress and comedienne Stephanie Courtney since 2008, has certainly attained spokesperson icon status. She's got more than 4.3 million fans on Facebook. Progressive has a web page with tips on how to recreate Flo's distinctive look, including a video on how to copy her makeup and hairdo. And there's also a Flo-isms app.

In a USA Today article last month Progressive's CEO pronounced Flo as an "essential" part of the company's $500 million-plus annual marketing effort to attract consumers. (Flo was inadvertently involved in a PR-social media blunder this week that may threaten her beloved image.)

E-Score: 49% awareness, 44% appeal, 14% dislike

Aflac Duck

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You might mute the TV when the Aflac duck comes on, but the mishap-prone bird has made the insurance company a household name. It sells supplemental insurance — "talk about putting someone to sleep," says Wilbur. "They got people to pay attention to their message."

After 11 years as the voice of the Aflac duck comedian Gilbert Gottfried was fired last year for making insensitive jokes on Twitter about the earthquake that devastated Japan. After a national search that involved much-publicized auditions to find just the right quack, a new voice was found in 2011 in Daniel McKeague.

E-Score: 41% awareness, 42% appeal, 11% dislike

GEICO Gecko

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The talking lizard with a Cockney accent has starred in the insurance company's commercials since 1999. (Geico is owned by Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A).) Originally voiced by Kelsey Grammer, the gecko is now voiced by English actor Jake Wood and travels the country spreading the word about saving on car insurance. So far this year he's traveled to Chicago, New York, the Southwest, a clothing-optional beach and Las Vegas, where Richard Simmons put in an appearance). And don't forget the easily offended Cavemen ("It's so easy a caveman could do it"), which launched in 2004. They even parlayed their popular commercials into their own sitcom on ABC for all of one month in 2007.

E-Score: 54% awareness, 45% appeal, 10% dislike

Nationwide

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'Nationwide is on your side' is a familiar tagline by now, as is the 'World's Greatest Spokesperson in the World,' played by actor Bob Wiltfong (his LinkedIn profile). Judging by his E-Score, most viewers won't mind that Nationwide is changing things up. Last month the insurance company said it was launching a new — more serious — ad campaign called "Join the Nation" to be voiced by Julia Roberts.

E-Score: 5% awareness, 29% appeal, 35% dislike

Which lovable — or irksome — spokescharacters did we miss? The Coca-Cola polar bears, the Capital One Vikings? Tell us in the comments section below.

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