What’s so funny about insurance?

It used to be that insurance commercials were created to convey one thing above all else — a feeling of total security and warm fuzziness that Company X was going to be there for you after your house blew up or your car got flattened by a rampaging elephant. Ad campaigns from agencies like Nationwide, State Farm, and Allstate were full of sensible people making sensible decisions. The slogans drove this theme home even more succinctly: Nationwide was on your side, you were in good hands with Allstate, and so on.

But somewhere along the way things changed and insurance companies decided to start getting a bit cutesy with their ads. The Aflac Duck (voiced by the unlikely pitchman Gilbert Gottfried) debuted nationally in 1999, while local companies such as Chicago-based Eagle Insurance had even started their bizarre “Eagle Man” campaign six years earlier.

But Geico raised the stakes forever with one humorous, well-received campaign after another. The Geico Gecko (originally voiced by Kelsey Grammar) debuted in 1999. Some of the more memorable ads to follow the Gecko were the TV show parodies (loved “Tiny House”) and the slew of celebrity cameos (Tony Little says, “You can do it!”). In 2004 the Geico Cavemen debuted, and it’s still one of my favorite campaigns to this day.

So thanks to companies like Aflac and Geico, it seems like every damn insurance company has to have a whimsical campaign of some sort. Most of them fail pretty miserably. Let’s take a look at some current ones, shall we?

Geico — Rhetorical questions

This series, featuring actor Mike McGlone channeling his inner Robert Stack, seems to be getting the most play for Geico these days. Like the best Geico ads, they’re very simple but very surreal at the same time. The hit-to-miss ratio on these is very high, with some of the best featuring Charlie Daniels, R. Lee Ermey, honest Abe Lincoln, and an enthusiastic piggy crying “wee wee wee” all the way home. My current favorite answers the age-old question concerning woodchucks and their propensity to chuck wood.

Progressive Insurance — Flo

Progressive first came to my attention several years ago with a rather dry campaign touting their willingness to research competitors’ car insurance rates against theirs. I can’t be the only one bored to tears with those ads, so in 2008 we met Flo (Stephanie Courtney). Flo is an impossibly cheery insurance salesperson/Wal-Mart greeter. I found her retro vibe to be kind of cute at first, but now I waver between ambivalence and mild irritation at her ads. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon.

How’s this for a mind-blower. Flo (well, Stephanie) had a bit part on an episode of the short-lived Cavemen ABC TV show, which itself was based off the Geico Cavemen. Don’t believe me? Check it:

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Commercials that don’t make me wretch

There is certainly no shortage of awful commercials out there these days.  At best, most television ads are instantly forgettable; at worst, they me diving for my remote like it’s the last slice of pizza.  But I want to focus on the positive today – commercials (or whole campaigns) that actually make me stop and watch, and in some cases are more entertaining than the shows they’re interrupting.

The King (Burger King)

I’ve made no secret of my love for all things Kingly.  I know a lot of people are creeped out by the silent protagonist of Burger King’s ad campaigns, who was resurrected in 2003 by the ad firm of Crispin Porter + Bogusky.  Well too bad, because I love him and apparently so do many others.  He’s appeared in multiple campaigns, and was most recently converted to a breakfast-serving robot (King 3000).  He even stars in a trilogy of video games.  Oh yeah, and the man can scramble like nobody’s business:

Oh, and here’s a history lesson for those who still think the current King is too disturbing.  If you can make it through the whole minute you are a stronger person than I.

Feast (Snickers)

I wasn’t a big fan of the “Feast” campaign when it started, but over time I have grown to love it.  Basically, each commercial features one or more people from various points in world history all enjoying the chocolate and peanutty goodness of Snickers.  The first commercial was amusing but a bit over the top.  My favorites feature a more subtle brand of humor.  To wit:

Cavemen (Geico)

I hesitated to include this campaign, not because it isn’t great but because I had thought that the spectacular flame-out of the ill-conceived Cavemen sitcom would spell the end of the commercials.  Luckily I may have been wrong. First, a quick recap of most of this brilliant campaign (which also extends to the internet via the Caveman’s Crib website):

For those who missed it, a new commercial aired during Super Bowl XLII, and it sure looks like an apology of sorts for the show to me:

n/t (Sonic)

I don’t know if Sonic’s current campaign has a name, so let’s just refer to it as People Eating Sonic Food (PESF).  These ads are all about people busting each others’ balls, which is a concept I can totally get behind.  One series features Peter Grosz and T.J. Jagodowski, a pair of improv performers.  Here’s a sample of their work:

Another series (my preference) features a presumably married couple, whose names I don’t know.  I had never seen the following ad until today, but it’s vaulted to the top of my list:

Priceline Negotiator (Priceline.com)

They’ve got Shatner – what else do you need?

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Unfrozen Caveman Sitcom

I’ll have the roasted duck wi…ah, nevermind.

More out of morbid curiosity than anything else, I tuned in tonight for the series premiere of Cavemen. I’m already on record as saying this show was a bad idea, but I gave it a shot anyway. And speaking totally objectively it’s…well, it’s not good. As I feared, they completely failed to capture the vibe of the original Geico commercials, which was as critical to their success as the basic premise.

So what went wrong? Well for starters, the makeup was bad. In a puzzling move, the cavemen have perfect white teeth (the ones in the commercials have choppers more like Austin Powers). They looked less like ancestral man and more like twentysomethings with really bad grooming.

Then there’s the more puzzling change of the cavemens’ jobs. Rather than the urban sophisticates the commercials portrayed them as, they are now middle class schlubs (one works in an Ikea-like furniture store). Apart from the opening party scene (which was very reminiscent of the commercials), gone is the sense of snooty style mingled with righteous indignation. Big mistake. Having a Cro-Magnon Frasier could be funny. Having a Cro-Magnon King of Queens is lame right out of the box. Because then what’s the difference, other than the bad makeup?

A lot of the jokes fell flat, particularly when the writers attempted to fabricate caveman culture. I doubt we’ll be seeing the lines “crave the cave” or “keep your penis in your genus” on a t-shirt anytime soon. However, even great sitcoms aren’t great right away. Not that this will ever be one, but I have to be fair.

That all said, I couldn’t stop watching. And God help me, I may watch again. Of course that has more to do with the fact that there’s nothing else on Tuesday nights until House starts than with any redeeming qualities of the show. And since Cavemen will probably get 86’d in a few weeks it’s not like I’m making a huge commitment.

But hey, even if they only make it to the second episode they outdid that Heather Graham show, so they got that going for them.

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I am a marketing genius

Advertising is a tough business. The average consumer is bombarded with hundreds of ads throughout the day, large and small, so getting their attention for more than a few seconds is a herculean task. Occasionally an ad campaign is heard through the din (the Geico cavemen and Nike’s “Just Do It” just to name a few) but most are quickly consigned to the dustbin of marketing history.

For companies looking to take their Q Score to the next level, I have the answer – spam. Sure the idea sounds vile at first, but so does McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign and that crap’s been going on forever. So many ad executives are sold on trying to be super-clever or technologically innovative that they forget that simple is usually best. And what could be simpler or more effective than the techniques utilized by email spammers? Obviously enough people buy their crap that it’s worthwhile for them to keep doing it, right?

So now I humbly offer a handful of companies the golden opportunity to slash their bloated advertising budgets and reap ginormous profits at the same time…

Charles Schwab Corp.

Why Their Current Campaign Sucks — By now you’ve likely seen at least one entry in the “Talk to Chuck” campaign. Reportedly in an effort to get people to focus more on the content of the ads, they aped the rotoscoping technique used in films like A Scanner Darkly. While the effect was pretty interesting in the context of a movie, it just looks damn creepy in the commercials. The disturbing visuals are made even worse by having to listen to whiny middle-class schlubs bitch about paying online transaction fees. Here’s a hint for all you Gordon Gekko wannabes — if you can’t afford a few bucks to make an online trade, you’re too poor to be playing the market.

Spam email with image

It can't lose!


My Awesome Idea — I know I’m a sucker for a good penny stock, and I’m smarter than the average American. So to tap into that sadly overlooked market segment, “Chuck” needs to focus their efforts on sending out some now-ubiquitous email stock spam. It’s a lot less expensive than animated TV ads, and it will allow all of us to sleep a little more soundly at night.

Kia Motors

Why Their Current Campaign Sucks — While big brother Hyundai has made great strides in improving not just the quality of its cars but public perception of its cars, Kia still struggles. Making matters worse is series after series of uninspired ads that are either nauseatingly cutesy or ridiculously pretentious. Thanks to some of the recent Ronda ads, now instead of merely laughing at Kia I loathe them with the heat of a thousand white-hot suns.

Kia spam ad

To buy fly magenta, indeed.

My Awesome Idea — If Kia wants people to think of them as a better car, they need to get people to think in the first place. And what kind of advertising does that better than those emails full of random words that don’t even seem to be selling anything at all? No kind, that’s what.

America Online

Why Their Current Campaign Sucks — I’m not even 100% certain how AOL is attempting to market itself these days (it has been awhile since I’ve received an unsolicited AOL CD in the mail), but the last campaign I do remember — basically appealing to borderline retards who still, as of 2005, had no idea what a computer virus was or how to prevent them — was horrendous. But does it really matter anyway? So many people have been so turned off by the rather pushy tactics of the past that the company really has nowhere to go in terms of public opinion but up. Or do they?

AOL spam email

Sounds like a good deal to me.

My Awesome Idea — Striking deals with computer vendors to come pre-installed with Windows is no longer sufficient. Mailing out enough CDs to cover most of Greenland is no longer sufficient. It’s time for AOL to take things to the next level if they want to relive the glory days of the ’90s, and that means one thing — Nigerian 419 Scam emails!  It’s gold, Jerry, GOLD!

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You know how I know the new Cavemen series is going to suck?

Because I get more laughs from a 30-second Geico caveman commercial than I did from this preview clip on ABC’s website. Mistake number one was not getting the actors from the commercials to star in the series. They are actually a big reason why the ads work so well. Mistake number two was hiring a makeup designer from the local community college. With the possible exception of the one in the passenger seat, they look more like really tan guys with horrible grooming habits than prehistoric men. And although I can’t tell from such a brief clip, I will bet money that another crucial aspect of the commercials – that the cavemen are actually rather urbane and sophisticated yuppie types – will be lost as well.

Oh well, at least it can’t be any lamer than According to Jim. I think.

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Funny for 30 seconds? Oh yeah. 30 minutes?

Hey ABC? Next time, maybe do a little research.

Funny for 30 seconds?  Oh yeah.  30 minutes?The key to a really fresh and fun concept staying that way is to avoid overexposure. But entertainment executives rarely subscribe to the “less is more” theory, and as a result we get ill-fated concepts like the recently announced ABC series “Cavemen.” The show, as you probably already guessed, is based on the totally awesome series of Geico commercials centering around a group of prehistoric sophisticates suffering bigotry in the modern world, mostly at the hands of the aforementioned insurance company.

The ads work not only because they’re extremely clever, but because they’re extremely short. You get a setup and a punchline in under a minute. I just don’t see them working when stretched out to a half-hour format. The impact is lessened, and never mind the likelihood that the writing will be dumbed down for a mass audience. The multiple layers of uniqueness and subtlety that make the commercials so great will be hammered out by network executives and drowned in a crappy laugh track. Think “According to Jim” with a larger makeup budget.

I fear that when this show tanks it might mean the end of the ad campaign, and that would be the real crime. It would mean the end of great marketing ideas like this.