Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Geico Goes A Little Limp

“When he wreck—estaba loco! Where I’m going? What am I going to do? Chelp!”

That’s Charo, exploding off the screen in a red-beaded dress as she offers her on-the-spot, uniquely bilingual stream-of-consciousness interpretation of Stanley Smith’s car accident. As it happens, she and Stanley are seated next to each other in a living room in this latest Geico spot, which offers an enticing twist on the testimonial.

Still, with Geico’s incredible elasticity in coming up with unexpected mini campaigns—from the Cockney gecko to the metrosexual cavemen—it was surprising that they’d go the route of the tried-and-true testimonial. The trouble with testimonials, after all, is real people are usually deadly dull, and everybody knows you can’t believe celebrities—they’re in it for the money. (Except perhaps Lindsay Wagner. She really likes her Sleep Number bed.)

So Geico killed two birds with one stone, so to speak, by having the real-person-satisfied-customer-letter-writer speak his actual words (he has to, for legal reasons) while a paid actor or celebrity provides a livelier simultaneous interpretation. The setup is simple, but genius. “I love my car like I love my own wife,” Stanley had written to the company—which I found kind of gross, but Charo opines the line was “muy romantico.”

Spots featuring Little Richard and Burt Bacharach are even slightly better than Charo’s, which itself is great. I thought the one with Little Richard would be my favorite; it’s worth seeing again and again just for his glorious, life-affirming pronunciation of “mashed potatas!” And, of course, his signature “whoooh!” at the end is sheer ear candy.

But the one with Burt is a true narrative communion with the customer, who while seated next to Burt on his piano bench, explains in a perfect deadpan why she switched to Geico: she was rear-ended and was so impressed with how Geico handled the other guy’s claim—and she likes the “little lizard.” Hands on the ivories, Burt interprets this deeply, so deeply in fact that some viewers might fear he’s having a stroke. His head is cocked sideways as he croons mournfully, “I was hit in the rear … lizard licks his eyeballs.” I was afraid he would sing something else about the lizard licking—so the word eyeballs comes off as even more hilarious.

These are truly some of my favorite commercials ever. But now, kids, alas, I have to say that three new spots, featuring Peter Graves, Don La Fontaine and Verne Troyer, which will be released into rotation this week, are not as dazzling.

And perhaps this is a lesson in celebrity interpretation and presentation. For this device to work, the B-list celebrities and actors have to be honest and self-aware enough not to take themselves too seriously. They have to be able to go all William Shatner on their bad selves.

To be fair, it works for Peter Graves. His spot is funny and by far the best in the bunch, if much lower key than the first three. He’s seated in a messy sewing room with an ironing board piled with clothing behind him. The customer, Caitlin Garden, explains that her husband totaled their brand new SUV on her birthday. “But as you know, I still love him!” Graves says (gravely), playing off his deadpan role as Captain Clarence Oveur in the Airplane! movies, who gets a boy in the cockpit and asks him, “Do you like gladiator movies?”

Don La Fontaine is introduced as the “movie announcer guy,” and indeed, as soon as we hear his voice, we know it’s the sound of a million trailers. I love the idea of placing him behind a mike stand in this woman’s kitchen, for all the world to see. But, oddly, it comes off as too quiet. He wears white and beige in a white and beige kitchen, and the whole thing seems sort of muted. All the customers are deadpan (perhaps because they are terrified), but this woman, Paula Sailer, seems like she’s going to pass out. (Movie announcer guy sports a shaved head under his headphones and is sort of scary looking.) The spot is funny in a conceptual, low-key way. While his lines are good, I had hoped his interpretation would be more over-the-top, with sound effects and crazy music and an even more booming voice. Another problem: Paula’s story is about two cars underwater, and with all the attention to Katrina’s anniversary, this is just grim.

The least successful of the latest three, however, is the one featuring Verne Troyer, aka Mini-Me. The other commercials all take place indoors, and maybe the campy furnishings and/or claustrophobic surroundings add to the humor. This one takes place outside, at a backyard grill, manned by the happy customer, Rick Wilcockson (you can’t make this stuff up). Verne stands to the left of him, in a black shirt and pants—regular civilian clothes, which are good—on a wooden board that usually holds the barbecue fixins. It’s visually funny, and one way to get a guy who is 2-feet-8 in the frame and on the level with the real person. But it’s also awkward.

Wilcockson seems to have the least interesting story, and Verne has less to work with in terms of interpretation. Rick opens with, “Originally, I switched to Geico to save money, but then I was in an accident.” Verne says, “Yeah, that’s right, I was in an accident.” He does this straight stuff till the end, when he does a little dance (“Got my check, it’s my birthday …”), which we’ve seen a lot of lame white men doing in other spots. The trouble is, we don’t have a grasp on who Troyer is. Perhaps there’s no joke because he doesn’t have the self-awareness to be in on the joke, and that’s key.

Plus, standing so close to the dogs and burgers being grilled, I was worried he’d burn his feet. And then he’d need a whole different kind of insurance. Can you scream “Aflac!?”