The Trouble With Geico Ads

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Oh, this guy again.

If you own a TV, it’s hard to miss Geico ads. A billion dollars in annual spending will do that for you.

We all know the Cockney-accented lizard and the indignant cavemen. Both campaigns have evolved to be more about the characters than about anything Geico might do for you, the consumer.

Some other Geico campaigns haven’t had the same staying power: Take the recent “taste-test” campaign, which wasn’t funny and made no sense.  It left me wondering if Geico’s ad agency was on some kind of “meta” trip, in which they poke fun at the institution of advertising, you know, while they advertise heavily.

The new “Happier Than” campaign may be the worst of the bunch. This is the one in which some kind of curious situation sets up the punchline, brought to us by a couple of guys on guitar and mandolin:

“You know, Ronnie, folks who save hundreds of dollars by switching to Geico sure are happy.”
“And how happy are they, Jimmy?”
“I’d say happier than a slinky on an escalator.”
Or: “Happier than Gallagher at a farmer’s market.”
Or: “Happier than Eddie Money running a travel agency.”

Some people chuckle, which is a fine result if you’re a stand-up comic. I maintain that it’s crap advertising.

Why I Don’t Like This Geico Campaign

Here are my two primary issues with “Happier Than”:

It’s wholly undifferentiated. Except for the brief reference to “saving hundreds,” this is the rare campaign that could be applied to any other brand, not only in the category, but in the world. The claim is “Geico customers are happy.” There’s no support – for instance, are they happier than State Farm or Allstate customers? It just says “they’re happy.” Any brand could say that, and every bit as credibly.

There’s no substance.  Some Geico competitors are running counter-ads showing that some shoppers actually save money by switching away from Geico. Others, like Allstate’s “Mayhem” campaign, illustrate the downsides of cut-rate insurance. Meanwhile, Geico sticks to jokes and vague claims (“…sure are happy,” “15 minutes could save you 15%,” etc.).

But Let’s Check the Needle

Two guys with guitars and nothing to say.

“Quit your bitching, Matthew,” you might say. “Sales are up, so the Geico ads must be working!” And I’d first applaud you for actually checking the sales needle. Geico is the #1 provider of auto insurance through direct channels in the U.S., with revenue of $15.7 billion last year (up 7.5% over 2010, and an impressive 73% since 2004).

I would then note that advertising is never the sole reason for growth. And that if you spent a billion dollars on advertising, you’d grow your business with almost any campaign you could conceive.

Geico’s growth doesn’t mean its ads are perfect. We as brand-builders should ask better questions: Are the ads working as well as they should?  With smarter ads, could Geico spend less and achieve more?

What the Geico Ads Get Right

If these Geico ads have worked, it’s more attributable to choices other than the campaign ideas.  For instance, I’d give Geico high marks for:

Consistency. Geico has kept the same tagline for years, to the point that most of us could probably recite it.

Focus. Geico has saturated its primary medium, television. Media Post News reports that, in 2011, one of every six advertising dollars in the insurance category was spent by Geico.  Geico has chosen to own this medium and they’ve done well.

It can be tempting for those of us with smaller ad budgets to learn the wrong lessons.  We might think that advertising that entertains is the same thing as advertising that works.  Call this “The Bud Light Fallacy.”  Just because they do something doesn’t mean it works, and even if it works for them, that doesn’t mean it will work for you. Again, a big budget can hide a lot of mistakes.

As I’ve stated in this blog many times, your job as a brand-builder is not to entertain. It is to motivate. And to maximize your business-building investments. Anything short of that has to be considered a failure.

What are your thoughts on Geico’s advertising, and the use of humor at the expense of substance? Please add your thoughts in a comment below.

Need help defining what makes your brand (and thus your advertising) different?  Three Deuce Branding can help.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2012 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.