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Geico Ads Go Beyond the Gecko


ANNOUNCER: Denise Bazic(ph) is a real Geico customer, not a paid celebrity. So to help tell her story, we hired a celebrity.

DENISE BASIC: It was Thanksgiving night when I accidentally hit a deer.

LITTLE RICHARD: Woo! Look out, look out!

BASIC: I called Geico, expecting to get a recording. But someone was there to help me.

RICHARD: Help me! Somebody help me!

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

RICHARD: Mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce! Woo!


Now, that's funny. When did car insurance commercials become something to talk about? Did you see the Geico gecko? The Geico cavemen in the fancy restaurant? There's so many ways nowadays in which viewers can avoid television commercials. How does the occasional spot break into pop culture?

Barbara Lippert, advertising critic for Adweek Magazine, joins us from New York. Barbara, thanks for being with us.

BARBARA LIPPERT: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: This is a group called The Martin Agency that makes the Geico ads?

LIPPERT: Yes, yes. And they've been doing them since 1996. And they have this incredible body of work, where one commercial's funnier than the others. And they keep changing it, they keep refreshing it. They run several different campaigns at once, so you never get sick of them.

SIMON: I did not know that Geico is an acronym for Government Employees Insurance Company.

LIPPERT: It was this obscure little insurance company since the 1930s that only dealt with government employees and military officers. And then the key was in 1996, Warren Buffett liked it so much he bought the company. And then they found that most consumers were writing letters to say they didn't know how to pronounce the name.

You know, they - so they bought out the gecko to make that point, and that was 1999. There was a strike of actors that year, so commercials couldn't use actors. So they had this animated creature that they could fall back on and they made tens of gecko commercials then.

And last year it was voted the favorite advertising icon of the country, next to Juan Valdez.

SIMON: Tell me a little bit about The Martin Agency. For one thing, they're not on Madison Avenue, are they?

LIPPERT: You know, Madison Avenue really hasn't been Madison Avenue since the '60s. Then Chiat Day revolutionized everything when they started advertising Apple, and they were in L.A. and San Francisco. So a lot of the great campaigns haven't been coming from New York for at least 20 years.

And these days, you know, those crazy Burger King commercials that, you know, involve strange chickens and midgets, etcetera, all that's done from Miami.

SIMON: The Martin Agency is from Richmond, Virginia.

LIPPERT: Richmond, Virginia. They're part of this huge advertising conglomerate called The Interpublic Group. But they've managed to stay funny and stay fresh.

SIMON: I love the caveman spots.

LIPPERT: Me too.

SIMON: And while we're here, can we hear one?


ANNOUNCER: It's so easy to use, a caveman could do it.

Unidentified Man # 1(Actor): (As caveman) What? Not cool.

BASIC: (As character) I did not know you were there. I didn't know...


LIPPERT: Each different campaign appeals to a different demographic or sells a different service. Like the thing. I just saved a lot, a bunch of money on my car insurance. That's for people who want to go to the Internet. You know, the customer angle is appealing to older people. You know, it's the Burt Bacharach generation.

SIMON: And is it working?

LIPPERT: It's absolutely working. And also the best thing is that it's raised the bar for insurance companies in general to have better commercials. And then that in turn has transferred to banks. So banks are trying to be funny now too.

SIMON: Barbara Lippert of Adweek Magazine, speaking from New York. Thanks very much.

LIPPERT: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.