Cloudy Advertising, embracing the new complexity in brands, agencies and consumers

Geico_insurance_geckoOnce upon a time, an ad was about a company’s unique selling position. But people can now accept more complex brands, and I thought we might be able to build a deeper relationship if we built on multiple fronts."  Mike Hughes, president and creative director, The Martin Agency

Complexity used to be the signature of bad advertising.  Now, it’s a competitive opportunity.

Hughes has run several campaigns running for GEICO at the same time:

1) The GEICO gecko.
(Too well known to need detailing.)

2) The "Good News" campaign. 
(This is the campaign that features a faux news report and the punch line "But the good news is, I just saved a lot of money on my insurance.")

3) Cavemen
(Tischler describes them as "a clutch of metrosexual cavemen, having somehow eluded extinction while developing a taste for racquet sports, plasma TVs, and ‘duck with mango salsa.’")

4) Testimonials
(Customer endorsements with interpretations by celebrity pitchmen, Little Richard, Burt Bacharach, and Peter Graves.)

This is noisy advertising.  There is no internal logic here, no secret strategy that makes all these campaigns go together.  In fact, to grasp this work, we have to "shift frame" entirely, by which I mean, we have to give up the assumptions and the meanings cultivated by the last campaign to make sense of the present one. 

This means the brand is now filling up with a certain internal inconsistency.  And in the old days, this would have been grounds for shooting the creative director, and moving the account.  What we need is a little research.  It would be very interesting to see whether and how these campaigns interact with one another.  It is almost as if The Martin Agency has undertaken a "transmedia" strategy within a single medium.

But I think it’s fair to say that consumers are amused and engaged by this approach.  Our simplest guess might may that there are many messages for a rich and complicated marketplace.  I mean, everyone buys car insurance, and these days "everyone" is a very diverse group.  Perhaps this is a grab-bag approach.  There are lots of creative strategies here, and maybe the idea is that GEICO has something for everyone. 

On the other hand, we are learning, or should be learning, to segment each consumer as we once segmented the marketplace.  We know that every consumer contains quite a lot of diversity, of noise, within. Perhaps consumers find in this GEICO advertising something that speaks to the world of complexity within themselves. 

But there is a last point to make here: that GEICO complexity comes in part from the internal complexity of The Martin Agency.  Mike Hughes decided some years ago to create multiple creative teams and to "turn them loose to tell multiple, distinct narratives designed to highlight various aspects of the brand."  As Tischler puts it, Hughs has transformed Martin "into a confederation of mini agencies, rather than a single midsize one."

That makes three: the brand, the consumer and the agency, all with the same structural property.  All are complex where once they were simple.  All are noisy where once they were quiet.  All are cloudy were once they were clear blue.  Something is happening, and we’re not sure what it is. 


Jenkins. Henry.  2007.  Transmedia Storetelling 101.  Confessions of an Aca-Fan.  The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins.  March 22, 2007. here

McCracken, Grant.  2004.  Complexity on TV.  This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. September 15, 2004.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Gaga Over Geico.  This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  March 08, 2007. here.

McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Noise.  This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  March 06, 2007.  here.

Tischler, Linda.  2007.  Clan of the Caveman.  Fast  Issue 116, June, p. 104.  here.

10 thoughts on “Cloudy Advertising, embracing the new complexity in brands, agencies and consumers

  1. Glen

    I think in the case of Geico, inconsistency works towards their selling point – the only consistent thing in all the ads – which is saving money on car insurance. Everything else becomes irrelevant, or in this case irreverent and absurd. It’s a self-deprecating jab at themselves and the advertising medium. It’s also a great exercise in theme-and-variation.

    I remember Geico commercials before the gecko, when they were throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck, and there seems to be some benefit to having some sort of focus. Focused complexity, as oxymoronic as that sounds, seems to be an effective concept in finding the sweet-spot where brand love happens. Where brand qualities become implicit rather than explicit.

    The Geico brand emerges though these manifestations of the same theme (saving money) to give you an idea of the brand that is more than the sum of its combined advertising campaigns. Like a cubist painting, we are able to see multiple dimensions at once.

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  3. petar

    It makes perfect sense to do what geico does. think of it as an album and geico the record label, the agency the A&R director/producer and the creatives the artist (they’ll like that…). you got your lead single, albumtrack and filler. now the lead single will try to get mass appeal, the great album track will allow an artist to show a different (deeper, shallow) side, ( more emotional, more angry, funny, or show their influences through a track that reminds you of an other artist). the filler is just that, filler; a funny trhow-away track that makes sense in the context of the album. what connect them all is the tone of voice ( with music literary)guarded by the producer, who in turn has to sell it to the label, who have to feel that it will sell. Russell Davies called it polyphonic branding, Mohammed Iqbal called it elongated brand communication. at the end of the day, it’s only human ( and yes i know it is so 90’s to see a brand as human) to be different things to different people, becuase people will like( buy) you for different reasons.

  4. jens

    you probably have a valid point, grant, but i do not think that the geico example cuts it here. geico is advertising before the age of branding. it is just about attention – which is also about the only thing that advertising can contribute to our world where meaning does less come from spin-doctors but through experience. — college-boys’ humor playing with the cliches of the advertising genre. that is gutsy, intelligent and does not seem to wear out easily. car insurance is about as far as commodity can go. — it is cheap, it is fast and the guys who commissioned the ads are obviously intelligent and daring. do i need to know more? do i ever want to know more? …maybe some mission statement or the ceo’s message? of course not.

  5. hart

    I think Mike Hughes is kidding himself. I talk to consumers about advertising all the time, and in general, they make few connections among GEICO’s various parts. I suppose you could argue that the campaigns were presented serially, they might have some additive effect. But the chief effect under the present circumstances is brand confusion. GEICO spends a small fortune in advertising and their business results are pathetic. The shame of it is that the campaigns, taken individually, are quite good.

  6. Paul

    another article i came across reminded me of this blog entry. in a review of a book on bakhtin, terry eagleton writes: “One might recall, however, that there is nothing inherently positive about change, dynamism, plurality, hybridity and open-endedness. What has altered since Bakhtin’s time, although neither Pechey nor the postmodernists seem to have noticed, is that if these were once alternatives to the system, they are now entirely indispensable to it. No regime is more in love with the multiple and dynamic than late capitalism.” (

  7. Grant McCracken

    Paul, great spot, thanks, and IMHO exactly right until the last two words. What is “late capitalism” besides wishful thinking and really glib thinking at that You would think I guy as smart as eagleton would know better. Thanks, Grant

  8. Paul

    true, that is an unfortunate slip of the tongue, but i’d be willing to chalk it up as a pointed reference to jameson’s work. “change, dynamism, plurality, hybridity and open-endedness” — rather than postmodernism as espoused by academia, he hints — is really “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” then again, i’m a bit partial to eagleton; his review of dworkin’s latest book was spectacular…

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