The Best Ad on Television
The brilliance of Geico's "Tiny House."
The Spot: It appears we're watching a promo for a new reality-TV series. In the show—called Tiny House—a newlywed couple moves into a midget-sized apartment. For one full year, they will endure cramped quarters and rising frustrations. Heads smash into low ceilings; limbs spill out of a teensy bed. "Are you kidding me?" shrieks the wife. But wait a second: We've been had! "The drama will be real," intones the announcer, "but it won't save you any money on car insurance." Aha—it's yet another ad for Geico. (To see the ad, click here, then click "What We've Done" and "Geico.")
Of course it's another ad for Geico. It seems you can't sit through a commercial break these days without seeing a new pitch for the auto insurer. Why are Geico ads all over your television? And why are some Geico spots so sharp and clever while others are disappointingly bland? The answer is more about the product than the marketing.
But before I delve into the strategy behind Geico's wall-to-wall advertising, I wanted to take a moment to recognize the brilliance of "Tiny House." This ad is a dead-on parody of those high-concept reality-show teaser clips. It's got the absurd setup, the moments of peaking tension (in theory plucked from many months of filming), the familiar security-camera angles and night-vision lenses, and the doom-saying announcer. "The marriage was built to last. But the house was built too small!"
The first time I saw "Tiny House," I was totally fooled. Part of me said, "There's no way this can be real," but the other part was thinking, "Well, Fox did run The Swan…" When Geico's logo popped up at the end, it was too late—I'd been punk'd.
I still stop to watch "Tiny House" every time it comes on. The details are exquisite: the soft-focus dream wedding; the much harsher lighting of "reality"; the guy scrunched over the range-top in frustration ("I just want to make an omelet!"); the vapid couple's increasingly agitated banter ("This is not awesome!"). I asked Creative Director Steve Bassett for his take on what makes the spot hum. He pointed out that, during filming, these actors were kept on the set (with its 4.5-foot ceilings) for far, far longer than they would have liked. Thus a lot of the frustration we see on screen is real. Sure, "Tiny House" is indebted to the low-ceilinged office spaces of Being John Malkovich, but it's still top-notch stuff. It may be the funniest ad of the past year.
But what's the deal with the broader Geico campaign? It seems to work so many different angles at once. There's the series of spots with the surprise punch line: "I've got great news—I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance!" There's the campaign where a talking gecko serves as an annoying, generally unfunny spokes-character. There are the one-off jokes, like "Tiny House" and (another personal favorite) the group of spots where cavemen get outraged by a Geico announcer's insensitivity. "It's so easy to use Geico.com, a caveman could do it," the announcer says. Cut to cavemen watching TV. One sighs in disgust: "That is really condescending."*
Geico's scattershot approach makes more sense when you think about their customers. Car insurance has perhaps the broadest target audience of any product. Who is Geico selling to? Pretty much everyone—man or woman, gay or straight, black or white, hip or hick. If you drive a car, they want your business. Even extremely broad brands, like Coca-Cola, still have niches they're trying to dominate (it's mostly young people who drink sugary sodas, for example). But car insurance companies know no niche. We all drive. We all have insurance (I hope). And we all stay insured through every stage of our lives—no matter our mood or marital status or income.
As a result, Geico needs to air a range of spots that will appeal to many different people. Some ads are straightforward and tame (aimed at older drivers), while some are absurd (the kids seem to like this). All for a single product.
Still, it's not just the range, but the volume of ads that's so astonishing. It seems like there's a Geico spot every time you turn on the TV. Other car insurers run huge numbers of ads, as well. According to Ted Ward, V.P. of Geico marketing, insurers are spending more than ever on ad buys right now. The industry has seen a profitability spike in the last few years. This is because accident rates have gone down (partly due to better-built cars, partly due to an aging—and thus slower-driving—population), and claims have thus decreased. Since there's suddenly more money to be made, everyone's trying to grab a bigger share. The quickest way to do that is by ramping up your television ads.
At the moment, Geico's market share is 5.6 percent—far below that of the big boys like State Farm (18.2 percent) and Allstate (10.4 percent). But Geico is growing fast, and it relies on direct-to-consumer sales (through a Web site or 800 number) instead of a network of salesguy middlemen. While its competitors are running lots of dour ads that exploit our fear of accidents, Geico stands out from the clutter with its oddball humor and lighthearted tone. The company has managed to inject fun into a product that we resent having to buy and that we associate with miserable moments. That's no mean feat.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.
Still from "Tiny House" television commercial courtesy the Martin Agency.