Thursday, August 3, 2006

Ad nauseam

Kicking the lizard to the curb, maybe

How can this be? Is the GEICO Gekko – that witty, foreign-born reptilian symbol of the insurance arm of the Berkshire Hathaway empire – on his way down the drain?

We’ve seen him for a few years, at least, spreading the good word about how “15 minutes can save you 15 percent on car insurance.” He’s gone from being a nonentity in the GEICO operation to being hailed as employee of the month … all the way to making guest appearances on “talk shows,” preaching the company evangel to anyone who’ll listen. Only now, it appears he’s in the process of being replaced by a whole new cast of characters – some of them more animated that the lizard himself.

GEICO has rolled out its new ad campaign, one that plays on a straight man/wild man formula: Real GEICO customers are paired with exuberant public figures; their experience at getting claims settled quickly is contrasted with the celebrity’s “interpretation” of the customers’ experience with claims and customer service.

And so placid real-life GEICO customer Denise Bazik is paired with Little Richard, rock’s eternal freakazoid shouter. The customer’s real-life story is simple enough: On a Thanksgiving holiday she hit a deer. Little Richard: “Look out … somebody help me!” Bt thanks to GEICO’s quick claims service, the problem is resolved happily. On to Grandman’s house. Little Richard: “Mashed potatoes and gravy, and cranberry sauce! Wooooooo!

Or there’s genial Stanley Smith, the gentleman who’s twinned with the forever bubbly and fully upholstered flamenco guitarist Charo, star of, well… star of Charo. The gentleman’s straightforward explanation of how GEICO services worked for him after wrecking a car he loved is translated in Charo’s effervescent Spanglish, virtually of it spoken too fast for transcribing here.

Then there’s Brenda Coates, who sits at a piano beside a somewhat ghoulish Burt Bacharach, the enduring songwriting legend, at the woman’s side like some lounge vulture from Vegas, audibilizing her automotive misfortune in supper-club style.

Her car, it seemed, was struck from behind by another GEICO customer. Bacharach croons: “I got hit in the rear …

Like with all the others, GEICO comes to Ms. Coates' rescue: Matter resolved. Bacharach again: “And I hope I never get hit … in the reeeear again.”

Not a lizard in sight anywhere – and that’s curious given one of his own pronouncements. “People trust advertising icons,” the Gekko says in one of the TV spots – which begs the question of why it seems at least possible he’s on his way out, why GEICO would throw over one of the best brand-associative symbols in the car insurance business.

Maybe the little bastard’s just planning a long vacation: kickin’ it with Winnie the Pooh and the Taco Bell Chihuahua on Ibiza for a month or so. Maybe they’ll bring him back in the fall with his own talk show. Who knows? But whether this is just a brief hiatus in the beast’s march toward world domination of car insurance or he’s gone for good, the Gekko lays claim, at least, to having made car insurance advertising more fun than it has any right to be.

Compensating for everything

It’s getting ugly in America, on the road and off. Competition is fierce and in a hot and angry nation, there’s not much room for second place. Bring it.

That’s the hyper-aggressive subtext for Hummer’s new ad campaign, a blatant nod to our more atavistic tendencies, and that American appeal for instant gratification.

The ads are an indication that the Hummer division of General Motors has finally, fully embraced its outsider status, a status maybe never more contrarian than in today’s $3-a-gallon-plus period, when we wince at the pump at least twice a month. Even with improved fuel economy, the Hummer’s as much a symbol as a vehicle. The two newest TV spots for its 2006 H3 model own up to it in bold, red-meat style.

In the first ad, two guys in a checkout line are contrasts in the moden male. The first guy’s groceries are health food gone overboard: tofu, leafy vegetables, superfood of every description. Btu he glances back at the guy behind him, clearly stocking up for a barbecue: charcoal, ribs, chips –guy food, food for a manly man.

After glancing at a Hummer ad in the magazine rack, Guy #1 leaves the grocery store in disgust. In ten seconds he’s parked his old car, driven to his neighborhood Hummer dealer, picked out the 2006 of his choice, transferred the groceries, grabbed the keys and driven away. To a carnivore-rock soundtrack, over the image of a satisfied customer biting into a carrot are superimposed the words “RESTORE THE BALANCE.”

(An interesting choice for a tag line – especially when you consider that, when the new campaign was first launched, the original words were “RESTORE YOUR MANHOOD.” Yeah, it made buying a Hummer too gender-specific, and left out half the possible population of buyers.

But you’re also inclined to think that somebody at GM thought that was going a shade too far; quiet as kept, men are sensitive to any idea of a relationship between the size of their vehicles and the size of, shall we say, their most personal machinery. Cooler heads at the rewrite desk prevailed.)

The second ad is equally direct. On a playground, kids are taking turns climbing a slide, under the watchful eyes of two mothers. One of the kids cuts in front of the other in a line that isn’t really a line in the first place.

“Oh, I’m sorry Jake was next,” slender Wimp-Mom says to hefty Bitch-Mom, standing beside her.

“Yeah? Well, we’re next now,” Bitch-Mom says to Wimp-Mom, who stands there for a few seconds, looking bereft, vacant, waifish, whipped.

A bus bearing a huge Hummer ad rolls by … and in the ten seconds of her transformation, Wimp-Mom gathers her son, drives away, heads to her neighborhood Hummer dealer, picks out the 2006 H3 of her choice, signs the contract with an emphatic flourish, straps the boy in the back, snatches the keys from the salesman’s hands and drives away. To Ruth Brown's "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin," and over the image of a woman determined to cut that heifer at the playground off in traffic if she sees her again, we see the superimposed words “GET YOUR GIRL ON.”

Hey, the ladies like a hit of testosterone too, now and again.

It’s all a little unnerving somehow, this appeal to our baser aspects despite the price of gas and the likelihood for more increases in that price because of continuing, and newly evolving, instability in the Middle East. The phrase “fiddling while Rome burns” doesn’t quite bring home the gravity of the situation. But on we roll, with bigger cars with more horsepower and more tailgating and angrier drivers – our own little Moebius strip of madness in passive-aggressive America, where everybody compensates for everything.

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