Edgar Allan Poe and the Case of the Geico Commercial

99% Invisible Podcast Digs Up Surprising History

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What do Edgar Allan Poe and Geico have in common? The answer, it turns out, is not the screams of "Nevermore!" as that Brit gecko forces its way into living rooms around the nation.

There's a surprising line of influence from the 19th century horror slinger to the "Caveman" campaign that early last decade put Geico on the map as an unexpectedly innovative and ubiquitous advertiser.

You can only see it if you look as closely as Starlee Kine did in a recent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast. (Ms. Kine is worth knowing for, among other things, a "This American Life" piece in which she enlists Phil Collins to help her write a break-up song. It is transcendent audio, up there with Terry Gross asking Jay -Z why rappers always grab their junk. 99% Invisible is a wonderfully-produced, Radiolab-esque design-themed podcast that looks at topics such how sounds for products are made.)

In the podcast, Ms. Kine asked adman friend Noel Ritter how he came up with the idea of the embattled cavemen. It didn't come easy.

Back in 2003, when Mr. Ritter began work on the account, Geico was just entering the world of TV advertising and, as Mr. Ritter tells it, no one at The Martin Agency was particularly jumping to work on a presumably dry insurance company business. Mr. Ritter got unlucky, luckily for Geico, and was put on the team charged with cooking up a new campaign. In trying to communicate just how easy it is to sign up for Geico's policies, he went through lots of drafts.

On a lunch break one day, inspiration struck, courtesy of a short story Mr. Ritter was reading at the time. "Pastoralia," the title story of a George Saunders collection, stars a contemporary man and woman acting as a caveman couple living in a little-visited theme park that 's meant to be hyperreal but isn't really real at all. This being Mr. Saunders, the story is funny and absurd and concerned with the ridiculous and melancholy intersections of culture, commercialism and memory. And it provided the creative spark Mr. Ritter needed.

"The whole slogan came out fully formed," Mr. Ritter says on the podcast. "It's so easy a caveman could do it."

Ms. Kine then runs the same drill on Mr. Saunders, asking him where he got the inspiration for his work. That influence is a short-story writer named Stuart Dybek.

She chases down Mr. Dybek, who acknowledges the influence of a pair of Hungarian composers whose music once threw him into a sort of trance that helped him find his voice. From there, it's a short trip to Debussy. And from Debussy to Baudelaire. And from Baudelaire to his great influence, one E.A. Poe.

Ms. Kine doesn't interview them because, you know, they're dead, but the lesson is clear: Inspiration and influence come from strange and unexpected places and know no boundaries. A knowing short story can birth a knowing ad campaign that yields a short-lived sitcom that no one really knows. Or knew. Or watched.

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