The Taco Bell Chihuahua turns to selling insurance.

Advertising deconstructed.
Aug. 26 2002 10:55 AM

The Recycled Mascot

Why is the Taco Bell Chihuahua selling car insurance?

What becomes of old advertising mascots? I don't mean the ones that flopped, like reviled Domino's pitch-muppet Bad Andy, but the ones that were popular—maybe even more popular than the companies they were meant to represent. Lately, such mascots have actually been able to find new work. The famous Taco Bell Chihuahua has been shilling for Geico insurance, and more recently the Pets.com sock puppet has re-emerged on behalf of Bar None, which provides financing to people who have had trouble getting a car loan. See the Geico spot via Ads.com (using Windows Media or the RealPlayer) and the Bar None ads here and here, through Bar None's site (using QuickTime).

Competition among mascots is dog-eat-dog
Competition among mascots is dog-eat-dog
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The Geico ad: A bunch of people gathered in a waiting room practice delivering lines about Geico ("Geico has great service," etc.)—they're all here to audition for the job of commercial spokesperson. The audition overseer calls out, "Next, please!" Strolling through the crowd is the Taco Bell Chihuahua, famously booted from the chain's advertising despite his apparent popularity and thus presumably looking for a new gig. Then the Chihuahua spots a lizard—the lizard who appears in lots of Geico ads, which often turn on gecko/Geico jokes. "Well, hello," the gecko says in a chipper English accent. "Oh great," the dog mutters. "A talking gecko." The spot closes with a quick and perfunctory pitch for Geico car insurance.

Not so smart-alecky in this incarnation
Not so smart-alecky in this incarnation

The Bar None ads: In the first spot, we see a brief snippet of the sock puppet riding along with, it seems, a Pets.com delivery man; the shot is framed by a bubble. "I used to be top dog," the puppet says—and then there's a pop sound. Now the puppet is in a car lot, telling us that Bar None "gave me a second chance." He goes on to explain how Bar None can help people with even the spottiest credit records finance a car because "you deserve a second chance, too." In a follow-up commercial, the puppet accosts two people (a couple?) at a bus stop. After flirting with the woman, he fills them both in on how to get car loans despite their bad credit. The guy immediately dials the number and is approved. "Scintillating," the puppet says, in a mild burst of somewhat inexplicable sarcasm, before the spot closes on a reiteration of its basic pitch.

Happy returns? It may seem odd to link a brand to an icon of somebody else's brand, but in each of these cases it actually works. (And of course you can't just grab someone else's icon willy-nilly: Both Geico and Bar None went through the necessary hoops to secure rights and permissions.) Both campaigns certainly make more sense than, say, the decision by one of those cheapo long distance companies to use ALF, the sitcom-star muppet of days gone by, as a public representative. (See him in action here, mysteriously paired with all-American chart-topper Toby Keith, through Ads.com.)

Since the Taco Bell dog was almost spookily popular for a while a few years back—there were T-shirts, fan sites, the whole bit—Geico was wise to work him into a campaign whose unifying theme is goofy-twist jokes: People who know and love the dog might snap out of their stupor long enough to see what company has re-employed him, however briefly.

The Pets.com puppet was an obsession of mine for several months—when the company was still in business and then when it wasn't. Readers at the time pointed to precedents for spokesthings outliving the products they touted, and their observations have proved prescient. (Also surviving, so far as I know, is the Conan O'Brien parody, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.) I'm pretty sure the voice of the current Pets.com puppet is not the original, and the new version is far less smart-alecky, which I gather was the "charm" of the Pets.com spots. But still, even a halfhearted reincarnation still works pretty well in a series of ads on the theme of second chances. My only nagging doubt is that now when I look at the ads, I always find myself thinking of ALF and wondering: Come on, does everyone deserve a second chance?

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.

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