Two of the cavemen characters appeared in local TV ads that ran just after the Super Bowl in select markets, including New York, Dallas and Los Angeles. The pair make light of the fact that, at least these days, they are better known for appearing in an ABC series based on the central conceit of the Geico ads. In those commercials, the peevish characters grow offended anytime someone suggests that getting Geico insurance is "so easy even a caveman can do it." In the ads that aired Sunday night, the characters seem bemused. "Huh," says one. "A TV show -- about us," replies his friend.
ABC launched "Cavemen" -- which featured new versions of the intelligent but hirsute ad creatures -- in early October, and the notion of transplanting well-established characters from a commercial to a weekly network sitcom generated buzz among viewers and pundits alike. (One of the creative forces behind the cavemen, Joe Lawson, even left the Interpublic Group of Cos. agency that birthed the characters, the Martin Agency, to work on the program.) The show has so far fallen flat among critics, however, and the characters' reappearance last night suggests Geico wants to reclaim them for promotional purposes.
Fans left hanging
"We felt we owed it to Geico Cavemen fans to see the next chapter in their lives after the show, and I think that's kind of what we wanted to do with this," said Steve Bassett, creative director at the Martin Agency. In the current ads, the two cavemen comment on the makeup and diction of their ABC counterparts.
Mr. Bassett said the characters had been on a kind of "hiatus" while the ABC program launched, and that the agency wanted to see viewers' reaction to the new ads before determining how the Cro-Magnon favorites might be used in the future. Even though 13 episodes of "Cavemen" have been shot, a spokesman for the ABC program said the network does not have a return date for the show. The spokesman said ABC had no comment on the new commercial.
Taking a popular character from a 30-second milieu and placing it in a 30-minute one can be fraught with challenges. Ad characters "really have to tap into something deep and true in the brand in order to be successful for the brand in the first place. That may, in many cases, make them not very appropriate for a broader entertainment vehicle," said David Altschul, president of Character, a Portland, Ore., company that specializes in developing story lines for products. There are other potential conflicts too, he added. "If you are a producer, then the last thing you want is a brand manager looking over your shoulder, but if you are the brand manager, how do you protect your equity after you've turned [the character] over?"
TV show as promotional tool
Geico has had no script approval or say in the program's creative direction, but the show still has been viewed as a wonderful promotional tool for the Berkshire Hathaway-owned insurer, which has risen in prominence along with its quick-hit ads that also feature a talking gecko and C-list celebrities such as Charo translating the insurance stories of average people.
So strong was "Cavemen's" association with Geico, however, that many rival insurance companies balked at the idea of running ads during the series. Thanks to viewers who are more resistant to advertising or even prone to skipping commercials, new ad techniques involve giving a particular marketer more of a spotlight during a particular commercial break, show or specific evening. So even though the show was not a vehicle for the insurance company to brand itself, rivals couldn't be sure it wouldn't be perceived as such by viewers.
The Geico Cavemen originally appeared in 2004, after Geico sent a brief to the Martin Agency requesting ads that demonstrated how easy it was to get and use its insurance. The first spot centered on a talk-show host using the "so easy a caveman could do it" phrase, insulting a caveman who happened to be working on set as a mike grip. More cavemen appeared in a spot in which the TV-show host apologizes over lunch while one of the hirsute group orders "roast duck with mango salsa." Another is so offended, he snippily replies, "I don't have much of an appetite, thank you." Including the ad Sunday night, a total of eight commercials featuring the characters have aired.
Other ad characters simply can't be contained in commercials. The California Raisins, for example, appeared in a Christmas special on CBS in 1987 and went on to star in a Saturday-morning cartoon show on the same network in 1989. Just like ABC's "Cavemen" program, the "Raisins" series didn't tickle all critical palates. "Rather than make the animators draw a lot of wrinkles, the Raisins have been redesigned with smoother bodies, which makes them look like the California Eggplants," the Los Angeles Times wrote of the show.