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Insuring a laugh

In a medium where viewers parse an anchorwoman's legs and a news pundit's cha-cha-cha, where they cheer game show models opening briefcases, let us pause for a moment of edification.

The Geico commercial.

For more than a decade, the company has bombarded us with reminders to take 15 minutes and save 15 percent or more on our car insurance. It has done it without slo-mo images of shattering glass and crumpling fenders. Instead, it makes us laugh at our dysfunctional selves.

The latest spots pair customers with B-list celebrities for kitschy testimonials about Geico service. One with Little Richard was appropriated last week by The Daily Show, which superimposed President Bush at the table so the "whoooooo'' singer could translate Bush's speech on terrorism.

Bush: "Today we are safer, but we are not yet safe."

Little Richard: "Help me! Somebody! Help me!"

"I don't know if we set out to reflect pop culture. But I do think we try to do commercials that are grounded in the way we live,'' says Steve Bassett, creative director at the Martin Agency in Richmond, Va. The ad agency has produced more than 100 spots in 12 years for Geico, selling a stodgy product with saturation and satire.

Some viewers respond to the computer-generated gecko with the British accent. Others reply to Geico's blizzard of direct mail. But the television ads that freeze the thumb of the thinking man short of the remote's fast-forward button are the humorous mini commentaries on our societal foibles.

Who could forget the mother sans car who walks into the car line at school, blasting an air horn, a "my child is an honor student" bumper sticker plastered on her rear?

Almost everyone was punked by "Tiny House,'' a sendup of reality shows that had newlyweds going from wedding day bliss to a hell house of too-small hot tub and marital bed. "The marriage was built to last,'' intoned a basso announcer over crescendoing music, "but the house was built too small.''

"Cavemen'' poked fun at our political correctness and self-absorption. "It's so easy to use Geico.com,'' says the announcer, "a caveman could do it.'' Cut to Neanderthal men, impeccably dressed and urbane in their chic apartment. "That is really condescending,'' sputters one.

In Geico's newest ads coupling Little Richard and other professionals with ordinary folk, the customer is flat, the celeb oozes. Bassett says there was no intention to mock our obsession with stars and their over-the-top behavior. In the ads, the nobodies steal the show.

In one, a woman sits at a kitchen table. Behind her is a refrigerator covered with detritus held by magnets. Paula Sala, Real Person, reads the identifier below. To her right, standing at a microphone, is Don LaFontaine, Movie Trailer Announcer.

She calmly recounts her car accident: "We thought it would take forever to get some help.''

"A new wind was about to blow,'' thunders LaFontaine.

Advertising frequently uses humor. And it has always been about us. Elevating us. Frightening us. Enlisting us in a group. The relationship between popular culture and advertising is described as a snake eating its tail, a chicken and an egg. But today, experts agree, consumers are more skeptical. There is more noise to cut through, from iPods to the Internet to streaming phones.

"To step from among the crowd is the first objective,'' says Cynthia Morton, an associate professor in advertising at the University of Florida.

Seth Stevenson, a Slate contributor who writes the magazine's Ad Report Card, said he is not as enamored with the celebrities ads as others from Geico. He declared "Tiny House" the best ad of 2005. He says he was among many who thought it promoted a real TV show when it first aired.

"The details are exquisite,'' Stevenson wrote in his column. "The soft-focus dream wedding . . . the guy scrunched over the range top in frustration - "I just want to make an omelet!" - the vapid couple's increasingly agitated banter.''

"They figured out exactly how far to push the envelope,'' he said during a recent phone conversation.

"Tiny House" and other ads require repeated viewings to appreciate the cultural subtext. This is good for advertisers, who fear their audience is Tivoing them out. In "Cavemen," the Geico pitchman takes them to lunch to apologize for his insensitivity. One prissily says he is so upset he has lost his appetite. The other, his mannerisms savored only in multiple viewings, orders roast duck with mango salsa.

"Insurance is not a saucy topic, nor is it a topic we want to focus on,'' says UF's Morton. "If a brand can resonate with consumers on an emotional level, then they gain awareness.''

An ad airing for Volkswagen Jetta is emotional. It shows several young friends chatting as they drive when - BAM! - another car smashes into the passenger side. The friends are unhurt. The ad says buy a Jetta because it is a safe ride, an attribute not typically pitched to 20-somethings. It also makes a viewer want to talk to his therapist.

"So many people wrote to me'' about that ad, says Stevenson, "and said, 'I was in a car crash and every time I see that ad it's like posttraumatic stress syndrome.' ''

The ad "steps from the crowd.'' But who wants to feel like they've been mugged?

"Likability is a big thing. If they like your commercial, they'll like your brand,'' Bassett says. "When we got the account, most insurance companies worked the fear factor. We said, 'Let's make Geico more of a friend.' ''

Geico has moved from sixth- to fourth-largest private passenger auto insurer in the United States since 2003 and has more than 7-million policyholders. Some people hate the gecko. Some scratch their heads: Who is Burt Bacharach? But when pundits engage in "floccinaucinihilipilification" when discussing the state of pop culture and advertising today, they should know redemption is simple.

Make us laugh.

Hit spots

The gecko debuted as Geico's mascot in 1999 (he would later be shown bumping into the Taco Bell chihuahua at auditions). But we like the spots with more attitude. Here are some of the best:

* Squirrel (2001) - Pair of squirrels play chicken on highway and, when car swerves and crashes, high-five.

* Bad News/Good News (2003) - Soap opera, Senate hearing, attorney with jailed client: Your life stinks, but I saved on my car insurance.

* Testimonials (2006) - Real customers with breathless B-list celebrities.

* Car Pool (2001) - Harried working mom without car walks into school car line and humiliates daughter.

* Tiny House (2004) - "This is not awesome.''

* Cavemen (2004) - Who knew they were still around?

* Spelling Bee (2005) - Spell "floccinaucinihilipilification'' (picked by the ad's creators because it was the longest real word they could find; it means "the act of deciding that something is worthless"). By comparison, Geico is easy.

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