Can the Geico cavemen make it in prime time?

Advertising deconstructed.
March 19 2007 2:17 PM

Neanderthal TV

Can the Geico cavemen make it in prime time?

A few weeks ago, word arrived  that the Geico cavemen—those Neanderthal chaps who appear in some of the car insurer's television ads—might get their own sitcom on ABC. It's early days, of course. (A spokesman for Geico's ad agency told me they're "exploring possibilities" but that "there's a lot of room between a pilot and a show.") Can the cavemen conquer prime time?

They first entered our consciousness in the autumn of 2004, in an ad that initially appears quite humdrum. "It's so easy to use Geico.com, a caveman could do it," recites a blow-dried actor smiling into the camera. "What?" we hear off-screen. The camera pans, breaking through the fourth wall and revealing that the boom operator on this film shoot is, in fact, a caveman (wearing a backward baseball cap, as all boom operators do). Huffily dropping his boom mic to the floor,  he shouts, "Not cool!" and storms off the set.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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Nice gag. But it's in the follow-up spot that this concept hit its stride: We see two cavemen being treated to an elegant dinner, at which Geico hopes to make amends for the previous slur. When the waiter asks for orders, the first caveman requests "the roast duck with the mango salsa." The second caveman folds his menu shut. "I don't have much of an appetite, thank you," he hisses, glaring at the squirming Geico apologist.

Two comedic elements here: 1) the lighthearted satire of interest-group pique, 2) Neanderthals as urbane sophisticates. An amusing dual premise, but the elevating genius is completely in the details. (That startling entree choice. The stylish sunglasses perched on the caveman's too-prominent brow. The stone-faced seething of the hunger-striker.)

Video file.; The rise of the interjection 'Awwa'!; Marlon Brando in a scene from Reflections in a Golden Eye.; Brando; marlon brando; Reflections in a Golden Eye; http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid533275934 http://www.brightcove.com/channel.jsp?channel=78144477

Geico's ad budget is massive, and it funds multiple campaigns aimed at pretty much anyone who drives (meaning every sector, age 16 and up, of the American populace). Some of Geico's ads feature broad humor, appealing to large swaths of the viewing audience. But the cavemen spots felt a little sharper. Full of offbeat surprises.

When the cavemen reappeared for a second round of ads in 2006, the wry nuances became even more refined. In one dialogue-free spot, we see  a caveman riding an airport people-mover. He glides past a Geico billboard with the "So easy a caveman could do it" slogan, and he sighs in disgust. This surface joke is fine. But what I adore here is the sparkling precision of the art direction. The soundtrack is bouncy synth-pop from the little-known indie band Röyksopp. The caveman (en route to or from a vacation) totes a wooden tennis racket in a canvas shoulder bag. The implication of these careful cultural signifiers: The caveman has grasped not just literacy and reason but also the affectations of the modern hipster aesthete. (That knowingly antiquated racket might easily have been stolen from a Wes Anderson set.)

At the campaign's ancillary Web site, CavemensCrib.com (it lets you poke around their apartment), we learn that the cavemen are into (among other things): blogging, Tolstoy, yoga, smoked Hungarian paprikash, and Paddy Chayefsky movies. They have poetry magnets on their fridge … in Esperanto.

The ad folks are clearly having a blast curating the cavemen's highbrow lifestyle. But the joke, unlike the cavemen, is not evolving. We get it: Cavemen are historically portrayed as brutish oafs, not au courant intellectuals. This limited approach is no problem (in fact, it's a plus) in a 30-second ad. But can it sustain multiple episodes of a TV show?

Video file.; The rise of the interjection 'Awwa'!; Marlon Brando in a scene from Reflections in a Golden Eye.; Brando; marlon brando; Reflections in a Golden Eye; http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid533275934 http://www.brightcove.com/channel.jsp?channel=78144477

First, let's remind ourselves that super-high-concept sitcoms are nothing new. Third Rock From the Sun = "We're aliens and we can't tell anyone." Small Wonder = "Our daughter is a robot." These shows achieved relative success, so who's to say "We're cultivated cavemen" can't do the same?

There's even precedent for advertising icons succeeding on other platforms. The news stories about the cavemen's pilot all mention Baby Bob—the one-time dot-com spokesbaby who later had his own sitcom (and later still got back into ads). A friend also reminded me that Ernest, Jim Varney's redneck caricature ("KnowhutImean, Vern?") began as a pitchman before landing a kids' TV show (and then a string of hallucinogenically plotted films—see e.g., 1997's Ernest Goes to Africa).

As they compete for their spot on the fall schedule, the cavemen do have a couple of key points in their favor. First, they may have gotten their start as ad icons, but in their ad campaign's story line they actually detest Geico—which makes them slightly less tied to their identity as corporate shills. Second, judging by the stellar quality of the ads and the Web site, there's someone (or someones) with a wonderful comic sensibility behind all this stuff. It's a sensibility I'd be eager to spend more time with.

Of course, the cavemen will need to branch out from their eternally aggrieved-victims shtick. Perhaps they get a new roommate. Some missing-link type from a forgotten evolutionary eddy. He grunts and knuckle-walks and isn't into Rem Koolhaas at all. At first he messes with the cavemen's mojo, and they conspire to kick him out of their apartment. But in the end he teaches them (and us!) an important lesson about patience and understanding. Cue laugh track, roll credits, I'll need 23 more episodes and a Christmas special.

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