'Cavemen' Should Beware of the Ax

Media Reviews for Media People

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With the fall season upon us, Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg casts a critical eye on some of TV's new and continuing series to help marketers determine which may prove to be the best showcases for their ads and products. Last night, ABC's "Cavemen" had its premiere. The network should've just run Geico commercials.

"Cavemen"

Where/when you'll see it: ABC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
Cavemen
Cavemen Credit: ABC

What you'll see: "Cavemen" is an ill-conceived, humorless mess. ABC's viewers would have been better served if the Walt Disney network had just slapped on 30 minutes of the funny Geico ads that gave the title characters of this program their claim to fame.

"Cavemen" focuses on three hirsute, slackerish Cro-Magnons who have settled in San Diego, though they seem adrift in life. Joel is dating a noncaveman woman (a "sapien," in the characters' slang) and works at a Swedish furniture store (similar to, but not Ikea); Nick is a graduate student who distrusts sapien ways; Andy, Joel's brother, spends most of the episode breaking up with a girlfriend via cellphone or text message. The characters are so thin that it's their situations that are somewhat memorable -- not their personalities.

There seems to be some sort of message here about how mainstream (read: white) America views minorities, or even cultures that are extremely different. That's a viable topic worth exploration in this era of the U.S. and its image problems in other countries, but here, in 30 minutes on broadcast TV, it gets buried in a disjointed series of riffs, conversations and half-jokes. There are few insights, fewer laughs and the viewer is given little reason to care about what's happening on-screen.

As most of the viewing public knows, the "Cavemen" are the exact opposite of what they appear to be. In commercials for Geico that were crafted by Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency, the cavemen are cultured and erudite, not at all like the doltish creatures envisioned when Geico explains that buying its insurance is so easy "even a caveman could do it." It's that defiance of expectation -- the cavemen aren't stupid; instead, they like gourmet food and have feelings that are easily hurt -- that creates the humor of the situation and makes their ads something people wish to see more than once.

Writing a funny, compelling sitcom, however, is apparently much more difficult than buying insurance from Geico. The characters in the program are mopey, depressing and not terribly funny. They still sip chardonnay and have feelings and intelligence, but there's little for them to get upset about -- unless getting battered about by oddball girlfriends and life's many annoyances is something out of the ordinary.

The Martin Agency created a powerhouse Madison Avenue franchise with these characters. Now ABC and the show's creators have torn the whole thing down. The next time people see a Geico caveman ad, they might just do something they haven't wanted to do in the past: change the channel.

What's at stake: Media buyers say ABC's track record at launching sitcoms has been spotty in the past. Paired with another program called "Carpoolers" airing at 8:30 the same night, "Cavemen" looks to be an attempt to devise an hour of male-oriented humor to go up against such programs as "NCIS" on CBS. These two comedies also lead into the results program for ABC's popular "Dancing with the Stars," and building good viewer levels would only help solidify this emerging ABC franchise.

Who's onboard: Not a single insurance advertiser -- and that includes Geico -- ran an ad during the first episode of this series. By including the characters from the Geico campaign, "Cavemen" is on many levels an ad unto itself. So Geico gets a free ad; and other insurers will likely find better roosts elsewhere. Marketers whose ads did surface include Yum Brands' Taco Bell and Pizza Hut; General Mills' Yoplait and Honey Nut Cheerios; Doctor's Associates' Subway Restaurants; and Mars' Snickers.

Your ad here? Most advertisers would blanch if a broadcast network asked them to run one ad in a show while another marketer got to run 20. But this is essentially what's going on with "Cavemen." Whether intended or not, this show is one big Geico commercial, and that insurer ought to work with ABC to come up with clever ways to incorporate its messages into the program. Other advertisers can probably find venues that would help their messages stand out in a more memorable fashion.

Media buyer's verdict: "Cavemen" might want to take out a good insurance policy; the buzz among media buyers is that this could be one of the first programs of the new fall schedule to get the ax. "I think the odds are probably stiffer than, say, other new shows," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at Horizon.

"'Cavemen' is going into a much tougher time slot, but it may get some sampling just out of curiosity," said Steve Sternberg, exec VP-audience analysis, at Interpublic's Magna Global.
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