Gaga over Geico

Geico_ad Voice-over:

Denise Bazik is a real Geico customer, not a paid celebrity, so to help tell her story we hired a celebrity.


It was Thanksgiving night, when I accidentally hit a deer.

Little Richard:

Whoa!  Look out!  Look out!


I called Geico expecting to get a recording but someone was there to help me.

Little Richard:

Help me!  Somebody help me!


Geico got my claim in the works right away, and I was actually able to enjoy my Thanksgiving.

Little Richard:

Mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce!  WOOOOOooo!


Geico.  Real service. Real savings.

I love these ads, and I’ve been trying to think why they work so well.  I mean, what would an anthropologist say?

If we think of Little Richard as a Greek chorus (I know, I know), he’s a second voice expressing what the first voice cannot say.  Right?  Um, no, that’s not it at all.

If we think of Little Richard as a Greek muse, he offers creative inspiration.  Right?  Um, no, again. 

If we think of Little Richard’s voice is a "gloss," he serves one of three functions:

1) translation, turning speech we can’t understand into speech we can,

2) explication, suppling underlying facts or assumption,

3) exposition, drawing meaning out. 

No, no, and no.  Little Richard mystifies content and destabilizes meaning.  This is advertising at its most nimble and mischievous.  It evokes a convention, and then breaks it. 

The effect is funny.  Accustomed to one thing, we get another. Discontinuity creates a current of surprise and a small shock of amusement.  If only the world were more like that!  Thank God,  the world is not more like that!  Or, as Little Richard would put it, woooooo!

According to Adweek, the Testimonial campaign idea came from Warren Buffett, the sage of Omaha and the head of Berkshire Hathaway. Now there may be people more elementarily American than Warren Buffett, but I can only think of one and his name is Brett Favre.  The fact that Mr. Buffett helped inspire this mind-bending technique is, well, just plain interesting.  I would have bet what’s left of my scholarly reputation that such a thing could never happen, but then that’s what’s interesting about doing the anthropology of contemporary culture.  Strictly speaking, it’s one surprise after another. 

Clearly, the hat tip goes to The Martin Agency which turned Buffett’s interest in consumer testimonials into something remarkable. 

[If this were a Geico testimonial ad, you would now see, sitting beside me, Randy Jackson from American Idol and Randy would say: "They blew it out the box, dawg!" complete with exuberantly cliched hand gestures.]

Effectively, we are running two tracks of meaning in the ad and letting them play off against one another.  It makes me think of Henry Jenkins’ notion of transmedia, but in this case we are running the two media events in the same space.

[Cut to Horatio Caine (David Caruso in CSI: Miami), saying, with his signature menace, "two media streams in…the…same…(put on sunglasses, stand sideways) AAAd."]

As if to encourage the two-stream effect, the Geico customer barely acknowledges the celebrity in her kitchen…a clear departure from standard operating procedure in our celebrity addled culture.  These ads might as well have been split screen.  These screen are conjoined but kept separate, the better, perhaps, to spark off one another.

There is something interesting about the choice of celebrities.  In addition to Little Richard, the campaign features Peter Graves of Mission Impossible, Burt Bacharach of movie sound track fame, and Charo…who knows why Charo is famous.  She just is, ok? 

[Christopher Walken with his eerie emphasis: Who knows why Charo is famous but she just is, ok?"]

These celebrities established themselves before the slopes of Mount Olympus grew so slippery.  They became fixtures in our culture.  And then apparently, they choose, for their own reasons, to retire from view.  Bringing them back feels like an act of generosity on the part of the brand.  These are old friends, as familiar as they are famous.  We are pleased to see them again. 

The ad puts these celebs to work.  After all, this is not the usual kind of endorsement exercise with the celebrity air brushed into an adworld, Uma Thurman for a watch company, say.  No, these celebs are asked to play against type.  Bacharach is all louche and loungey, fallen but happy.  Peter Graves is apparently wandering in some sexual Second Life.  The steely Graves is gone. So is the parodic one.  Charo is the least interesting, and darn close to stereotypical as a chatty Latina who turns every English word into 40 Spanish ones.  And Little Richard.  He seems eager to get the translation exactly right (see image above), even as he then makes off with it, transporting it across state lines into a world of his own delirious invention.

These celebrities do seem to occupy their own alternative realities.  And it may be the same alternative reality.  Certainly, they are all have an air of contented eccentricity.  But only The Martin Agency can say for sure.

We can say is this: These ads bring together (without in any way implicating or integrating them), straightforward, hard working, middle Americans who turned to Geico in their hour of need, and celebrities who are all but AWOL, missing both from our screens and their own well known, PR scripted lives. 

The effect is spectacular.  Not just funny but resonant.  And perhaps this is because we have three streams running.  The Geico customer, the celebrity qua celebrity, and the celebrity against type.  It’s a lovely, interesting, noisy, cloudy, streaming event, as if The Martin Agency managed to stuff the cable this once with things that almost never go together.   


creative director: Steve Bassett

copywrighting: Bob Meagher

art direction: Adam Stockton


High, Kamau.  2007.  Geico’s campy success.  Adweek.  February 5, 2007.  here

McCracken, Grant 2006.  Who is the celebrity endorser.  Culture and Consumption II.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 

Little Richard for Geico on YouTube, here.

Charo for Geico on YouTube, here

Burt Bacharach for Geico on YouTube, here.

Peter Graves for Geico on YouTube, here.

For more on muses, see the Wikipedia entry here.

For more on the Greek chorus, see the Wikipedia entry here

8 thoughts on “Gaga over Geico

  1. Adam Richardson

    Did you see the spot on The Daily Show after the state of the union address where they superimposed Bush on top of the Geico customer, and had Little Richard “react” to his statements on terrorism, danger, and “don’t worry be happy”? It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. It was on YouTube, I think all that stuff has been yanked since.

  2. Steve Portigal

    NYT on this series (and some others) – For Some Aging Actors, Self-Mockery Sells

    How can Geico develop three divergent ad campaigns (caveman, gekko, and celeb) that are strong and working independent of each other?

    They all take an irreverent view of advertising, but this one goes all the way and makes fun of itself; advertising has long since co-opted parody!

  3. Stephen Denny

    … and don’t forget Bob LaFontaine, “that movie announcer guy”, who seems downright pleased with himself after finishing off his dramatic reading. “In a world… where BOTH of our cars were under water…”

    Frankly, I’m not sure why Geico has three fairly incompatible ad campaigns running simultaneously. The gecko seems a bit strained, the cavemen felt like a one-off that has just gone on too far, and while the celebrity spokespeople are certainly entertaining (for the most part), I’m not sure what they’re delivering.

    I wonder if all this is helping them sell more stuff.

  4. steve

    I’ve been citing Geico a lot in these threads because I think it’s a great example of an ad campaign that has the multiplicity Grant advocates at the tactical level while possessing stringent message discipline at the strategic level. I will bet just about everybody who watches football (huge buys for some reason for football) knows by now that Geico a) claims to have low rates b) that are easy to check and access on its website. The celebrity series is focused on a different aspect, superior claims service, which I suspect is not quite as driven into everyone’s consciousness yet. And this is all wrapped up in the idea that the product is for smart people with a sense of humor.

    The variety of their campaigns prevents the viewer from getting as bored and exasperated as he or she otherwise would–they really have been carpet-bombing us with a lot of messages. And it gives more chances for any given ad to click with a particular viewer, since potential customers are a heterorgeneous bunch. (Geico also runs some pretty funny radio ads, including one warning its low rates not to taunt and bully other companies’ rates and one parodying business strategy discussions.)

  5. Adam Richardson

    Most insurance ads seem to fall into two categories:

    Rewind: Showing how quickly they life back to normal. Usually illustrated by running the film or plot backward.
    Random: Aflack duck anyone? Geico’s ads largely fall into this category.
    Reality: Sincere interviews and montages of local agents showing how they respond after tornadoes. State Farm has done a lot of this (did you know Barry Manilow did their jingle back in his early days?)

    I hadn’t thought about it before, but they advertise a heck of a lot. As Steve points out, the variety of Geico’s ads stop them from being overly repetitive, as they would be if based on a single theme from any of the R’s.

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