What Warren Buffett's Geico ad says about him—and about American CEOs.

Commentary about business and finance.
March 19 2010 3:40 PM

Just Call Him Axl

What Warren Buffett's Geico ad says about him—and about American CEOs.

In a climate in which CEOs—especially really wealthy CEOs of financial firms—are generally unpopular, it might seem dicey to use one in an advertisement. Of course, there is a long tradition of bosses and founders appearing in pitches for their firms' products and services. And there are good reasons for doing so. It saves ad agencies the cost and effort of hiring actors. CEOs are more likely to approve high-concept ads if they themselves are in them. Most significant, the ads can work.

Over the years, CEO ad appearances have come in several forms. There's the CEO as product endorser. In the 1980s, Victor Kiam was a fixture in advertisements for the Remington razor. His famous pitch: "I liked it so much that I bought the company." (Ads in the series can be seen here, and here. Why is former quarterback Doug Flutie in the latter ad? Kiam also owned the New England Patriots.) There's the founding CEO as folksy embodiment of the brand. Wendy's founder Dave Thomas routinely appeared in ads (like this one) pitching his aw-shucks demeanor and the fast-food joint's square burgers. There's the CEO explaining what his company does and trumpeting a slogan. Joseph Goryeb, CEO of Champion Mortgage, an early subprime lender, appeared in his company's advertisements, always uttering the catchphrase "When your bank says no, Champion says yes." (Of course, those ads became obsolete during the late credit bubble, when banks stopped saying no.)

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And then there's the CEO as tattooed and bandana'd rock star Axl Rose.

Huh? Yes, that's right. That's Warren Buffett hamming it up in a new ad for the auto insurance firm Geico. Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Geico, is an icon of American capitalism, the second wealthiest American (and a member of the board of directors of this site's parent company, the Washington Post Co.).

Insurance—and car insurance in particular—has become a surprisingly fertile field for creative ads. Maybe there's an inverse relationship between the excitement or intrinsic funniness of an industry and the ads crafted to pitch it. But in recent years, we've seen the highly popular and effective AFLAC duck, Progressive's wacky saleswoman Flo, and Geico's campaigns with the gecko, the googly eyes perched on dollar bills, and the cavemen. Now Geico has upped the ante once again.

One big difference between this ad and the standard CEO ad—and perhaps a concession to the generally unfavorable public mood toward CEOs—is that Buffett is uncredited. If you don't know it's him, you may think it's just some weird old guy with chunky glasses acting like Axl Rose, which you may find funny. If you don't know Axl Rose, maybe you'll chuckle at the notion of an earnest power ballad about car insurance. And if you know it's Warren Buffett's Axl Rose impersonation—which is to say, if you are a journalist, Nebraskan, or devotee of the cult of Buffett—you have the added bonus of an inside joke.

The ad, like most things Buffett has done, works. Buffett has a good sense of humor. He takes his job and responsibility to shareholders very seriously, but the ad shows that he doesn't take himself too seriously. Buffett's public persona is frequently self-deprecating. I can't imagine many CEOs reacting favorably to an ad person suggesting that he wrap his head in a purple scarf, paint fake tattoos on his arms, put on a wig, and sing off-tune while rocking back and forth. But Buffett actually did.

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Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

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