Keeping It Real

Geico stays on a roll with hilarious ‘Tiny House’ parody

It’s hard to lower the bar on reality programming. By now, the creatures from the bottom of the reality lagoon—like the bug-eaters in bikinis and the plastic-surgery enduro-pod-persons—have swamped American culture. But that doesn’t mean there’ll be any fewer entries in this year’s reality pit.

That’s why I figured Tiny House, with its pitch-perfect promo, was a true contender. It lowers the bar so far, in fact, that the low bar itself is the twist—newlyweds are forced to live in a house with ceilings that are four feet high. “The marriage was built to last!” the announcer thunders, as we see the wedding ceremony, the bride all tricked up and Trista-d out and the groom repeatedly telling her, like a dim-witted lugheaded bachelor clone, “You’re so awesome!” Cut to post-honeymoon: “But the house was too small!” The pair is seen straining at the seams in this staged TV-Lilliput, including the all-important, creepy black-and-white night-surveillance shot in the bedroom.

It turns out it’s a Geico ad—”The drama will be real, but it won’t save you any money on your car insurance.” But after the freakish exploitation of little people on The Littlest Groom, the setting sure seemed plausible. The spot is part of a new third wing of the campaign, joining the spots with the jalapeño-sized animated gecko (who mysteriously sports an India-under-the-Raj accent) and the mean-but-funny “great news” series (“I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance”).

Few campaigns have had the elasticity of the 10-year-old Geico effort, which allows for so many different executions (three sub-genres!) airing simultaneously. It’s one response to the fractured, fragmented TV world that actually works (and allows for parodies of soap operas to run on soap operas, etc.). And the plasticity allows for a lowly message about a sleep-inducing category—cut-rate car insurance (“15 minutes can save you 15 percent or more”)—to be entertaining, and even become part of the pop-culture vernacular. The good news/bad news schtick is the “Where’s the beef?” of the Orange Alert generation, where everything is a qualified, media-spun success.

The approach gets better and better in a world in which satire writes itself. This becomes clear in the spot in which a judge stops the sentencing in corruption proceedings to enthuse about his personal good news. It’s no odder than Martha Stewart announcing she’s going to prison and saying she’ll miss her chickens. On the sales side, the success of the campaign, with its prominent 1-800 numbers and Web address, can be easily tracked. If it hadn’t worked year after year, there wouldn’t be so many spots.

Why do I love this Tiny House thing so much? First of all, its meticulous production expertly mimics every squalid detail of the reality-promo genre (the cutting and pacing, the typeface, the music). And there’s a clever, deeper insight here: “Living concept” shows like Big Brother are awful precisely because they make the viewer feel claustrophobic. Imagine watching a show about two people where the ceiling seems to be falling on them?

The other reason it resonates is that it recalls one of the best movies ever made (in the demented-genius ouevre of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman), Being John Malkovich. In that film, owing to “today’s wintry job climate,” the down-on-his-luck puppeteer takes a temp job on floor 7 1/2 of a Manhattan office building. It’s half the height of a standard floor, and you have to stop the elevator between floors and take a crowbar to the doors to get in—but once in, everyone functions in a completely affectless, office-y way. Perhaps it touches something primal in our subconscious, but everything that happens in that oddly stumpy visual atmosphere is heightened and hilarious.

Within the same “mini-campaign” taking satirical whacks at culture, Martin also released a series of Geico ads that rely on a different high-concept joke—that the Web site is so easy to use, “even a caveman can do it.” When the oily announcer guy says that line on the set, a Cro-Magnon stagehand stalks off; in the next spot, he’s shown at home with a companion (his friend? brother? lover?) in their tastefully appointed loft, watching the commercial on their flat screen. The joke is that not only do these Neanderthals have socially redeeming qualities, they are in fact hyperarticulate, P.C. metrosexuals. When he hears the line, the friend says, through his intricately made Planet of the Apes latex makeup and prehistoric teeth: “That’s so condescending.”

(Over the years, the actors have been consistently well cast. The three-headed dweeb in the black turtleneck(s)? That was actually Sean Hayes of future Will & Grace fame!)

Another new spot is a parody Wonder Glue infomercial—but it’s not as funny as a previous Geico spot for the Dr. John Parker hair-replacement system. And certainly not as funny as the parody spots that the Energizer bunny banged his way through in years past.

Are ads that are parodies of other ads and TV getting old? Probably. They have to be superbly done. Is there an end to this stasis, this Xerox-of-a-Xerox TV loop? The relief is that, like the better reality shows, the Geico spots don’t teach us anything about ourselves, really—you just get to be amused while watching with car-wreck eyes. Which brings the idea of cheaper car insurance full circle.



Geico

Agency

The Martin Agency,

Richmond, Va.

Creative director

Steve Bassett

Copywriter

Joe Lawson

Art director

Noel Ritter

Agency producer

Brad Powell

Director

Speck/Gordon,

Omaha Pictures,

Santa Monica, CAlif.