Commercial Break / Listeria: Ranking the GEICO Celebrity Commercials
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 30, 2008
“That’s a complete dramatization, of course…”
GEICO has nothing further to prove with its ad campaigns. Between the identity-solidifying GEICO Gekko character, the pleasantly surprising “I just saved a boatload of money on car insurance by switching to GEICO” ads, the phenomenon-inducing “So easy a caveman can do it” series, and a little commercial called “Tiny House” (which if you don’t rank as the greatest commercial of all-time, you certainly have to at least put in the top ten), there’s no question about it–GEICO is the advertising dynasty of the 00s. Anything further that it does at this point is just stat-padding.
That said, it’s been a while since GEICO’s ads have been consistently groundbreaking and hilarious. The GEICO Gekko commercials (which, to be honest, were never particularly hysterical to begin with) have become rote. The Caveman commercials have run their course, and in the shadow of the Caveman hype (or anti-hype, I guess), the premise has been sapped of all freshness. And their most recent regular series, the GEICO Celebrity ads, have been very, very hit or miss.
You know the ones. “[Non-Famous Person] is a real GEICO customer, not an actor, so to tell his/her story, we hired [Famous Person].” The reg tells their sympathetic, GEICO-fellating story, while the celeb punctuates their tales with exhortations meant to be representative of what the celeb is famous for. The purpose of this gimmick is obvious–to simultaneously present relateable stories praising the merits of GEICO while poking fun at the tendency of commercials to hire celebrity ringers for no particular purpose, and getting in some good, winking celebrity self-mockery while they’re at it.
Fair enough. But given the translatability of these celebs’ various skills to the commercial spokesperson format, the actual watchability of these commercials varies greatly from famous person to famous person. Given the ten I was able to remember / find on YouTube, I’ve ranked them from 10-1 in order of how bearable these commercials are, given that nearly all of them have been given the unenviable task of holding up to dozens and dozens of repeat viewings.
10. Joan Rivers. What a surprise that a celebrity otherwise as ingratiating and low-key as Joan Rivers should show up as the most annoying GEICO cameo on this list. Nonetheless, this takes on special proportions even for Mrs. Rivers given just how creepy this commercial is. Givn the fact that her countless visits to plastic surgeons now fills the entirety of the public’s perception of Joan Rivers (God knows I could barely identify anything else about her), all she does in the commercial is make bad facelift jokes that end up sounding positively frightening–“I CAN’T FEEL MY FACE!!” “Am I smiling? I CAN’T TELL!!!” Creates more sympathy for Joan than it does for whoever the jobber next to her is.
9 . Verne Troyer. Troyer isn’t really famous for anything besides being short, not talking much, and drunkenly, nakedly moroting around celebrity houses. So all he’s given to say here is to pointlessly echo the sentiments of the customer with what could be interpreted as “attitude” (“Yeah, that’s right. I was busy.”) They could’ve gotten just about any other famous person to fill these lines with equal amounts of character, and The Spy Who Shagged Me kinda sucked anyway, so fuck this commercial.
8. James Lipton. Lipton is a walking self-parody as is, so actually getting him to take time out of his busy schedule to poke even more fun at himself seems especially purposeless. Plus, even if it wasn’t, Will Ferrell’s exemplary SNL parody and Lipton’s brilliant appearance on Arrested Development should have closed the book on it anyway.
7. Michael Winslow. Not a particularly bad appearance–the sound effect guy from Police Academy pretty much has Pop Culture carte blanche for the rest of his life, and it’s a natural fit–but I can’t help but feel that he’s just kind of phoning it in here. His car sound effects aren’t particularly convincing, and the beatboxing and simulated hip-hop he closes the commercial with, meant to apprxoimate the sound of the customer’s car radio turning on, don’t sound like they’d be coming from that guy’s car stereo at all. Maybe if he had done his best Glenn Campbell impersonation.
6. Little Richard. A little Little Richard definitely goes a long way, so this commercial quickly outwore its welcome back when it was in heavy rotation. That said, watching this wide-eyed, falsetto’d lunatic is almost always a pleasure, and his “MASHED POTATOES, GRAVY, AND CAH-RANNNBERRY SAUCE!!!” is practically “Tutti Frutti”-worthy. Perhaps the best part comes before he even says anything, watching him quietly sip a cup of coffee. First time I’ve seen Little Richard silent and stationary for, like, at least five seconds. He almost looks human.
5. Burt Bacharach. This one’d be higher, probably, except I only watched it for the first time tonight. Don’t know why this one never quite caught on the way the others have, but it’s easily worthy of the list’s top half. The smooth sound of Bacharach’s piano is always appreciated, and the lyrics (“I hope I never get hit…IN THE REAAAARRRR…again…“) are appropriately inappopriate. Bacharach also behaves vaguely autistic throughout, which for some reason greatly adds to the commercial’s appeal.
4. Peter Graves. Once again, should maybe be a slot or two higher, but before this commercial, I didn’t really have much of a read on who exactly Peter Graves was (yeah, I know, I’ve been meaning to watch those Mission: Impossible reruns I see on the American Life Network every now and then). Still, his delivery of the commercial’s key line (“I was one verrry lucky woman”) and the awkward pause afterwards is practically flawless. Points to the customer for keeping a straight, even unimpressed, face throughout.
3. Peter Frampton. Of all the GEICO celebrity commercials, this one might have the most lingering effect in my Pop Culture consciousness. Now I can’t hear a Frampton song on the radio, or discuss him in casual conversation (which, in my world, happens probably way more than it should) without cupping my hands to my mouth and muttering “NOT-A-GREAT-WAYYY-TO-START-THE-MOR-NING…” or “I-WAN-TED-TO-PULL-MY-HAAAAIIIRR-OUU-U-UTTT…” Only thing keeping this from taking top honors is the bit where he works in a strained “Do You Feel Like We Do” reference, as if to remind audiences what he’s famous for. The talk box’ll do just fine, thanks.
2. The Pips. This one I think probably best achieves the idea of what GEICO was going for the whole time with this campaign–the mild but undeniable novelty of a bona fide Pop Cutlure icon (which the three Pips collectively add up to, I figure) doing what they’re famous for and using it to enhance a simple story of GEICO’s effectiveness. Plus, it definitely shares with the Frampton one the tendency to get stuck in your head beyond TV watching hours (I’ve been known to unconsciously drop a “WOO-OOH, FENDER BENDER” into accident-related conversation from time to time), and teaches these Amy Winehouse-bred kids a thing or two about what real male backing vocals should sound like.
1. Don LaFontaine. “Who?” Exactly. This gets the #1 if only by sheer virtue of it finally teaching me the name of one of the all-time That Guys, given an even further That Guy mythology by the fact that I would never have known before what he even looked like. Don is of course “That Guy from the Movie Previews,” perhaps best known for his “IN A WORLD…” introductory catchphrase, whose trademark intonation simply could not be further perfected. The introductory “IN A WORLD…WHERE BOTH OF OUR CARS WERE UNDERWATER,” coupled with LaFontaine’s dramatic hand motion, seals this one right from the outset. If only they were all of this quality.