When Regis Philbin stepped away from "Live With Regis and Kelly" last year, it was widely assumed that his record of 17,000 hours of airtime amassed over a career was unassailable.

Instead it's being pecked away at in innumerable 30-second increments by a perky lady in white overalls and a little walking, talking lizard.

You're not imagining it -- commercials for car insurance, many of them featuring the aforementioned Flo or the Gecko, have overrun TV.

Why the tsunami?

In the first decade of this century, spending on insurance advertising -- the vast majority of it auto insurance -- shot from $1.6 billion to more than $5 billion. Geico changed the landscape when it began spending unprecedented amounts on TV about a decade ago. (The Gecko was introduced in 2000.)

The company bypassed agents, selling policies directly to consumers. That kind of direct appeal necessitated advertising. It also meant lower overhead and thus more money available for TV buys.

Watching Geico take big bites out of their business, the other major personal insurance companies had no choice but to ante up.

"Geico is a huge TV spender," said Brian Steinberg, TV editor at Advertising Age. "It spurred all the others to keep up. You have a number of competitors all trying to get market share."

You'll notice you're not getting bombarded with life-insurance ads. Auto gets the big push because it's mandatory. You have to be covered to get behind the wheel. And everybody in this country drives.

So it's required. And it's expensive. That makes it a tougher sell than, say, beer. Or tortilla chips.

"Insurance is not something we wake up in the morning and want to think about," said Lisa Cochran, Allstate's vice president of marketing. "It's not fun to buy, and it's a big chunk of your disposable income. So we need to make it as engaging as we can for people."

To do that, companies build campaigns around personalities. Geico, of course, has the evergreen Gecko, and now the squealing piggy. The caveman still shows up once in a while.

Allstate uses its sober good-hands spokesman (Dennis Haysbert) and its wild man Mayhem (Dean Winters). State Farm has been using quarterback Aaron Rodgers and its magic jingle ("Can I get a hot tub?").

Progressive, of course, has Flo and, lately, the Messenger, the guy who looks as if he stepped unshaven from a '70s TV action series. Farmers uses J.K. Simmons from "The Closer" in a university setting.

All of these companies have surprisingly popular channels on YouTube devoted exclusively to their commercials.

"People vote on what's the funniest or the most creative," said David Phillips, public affairs spokesman for State Farm. "It's almost come full circle where we're watching television for the commercials as opposed to the programming."

The one thing almost all of the spots have in common is that they are light on product specifics. Instead, they aim for brand awareness.

"They use the ads to create interest," Steinberg said. "The idea is to then drive people online to find out more. They don't need to spend their TV spots getting you to read the fine print."