If there was ever an ad campaign that perfectly exemplified the current state of TV advertising and the weird symbiosis of offender and offended, it's the Geico cavemen commercials. Have you seen them? The pitch is unconventional but the storyline very familiar: The car insurance company makes the claim that its Web site is so easy to use "a caveman could do it." Cut to a couple of hirsute Neanderthals who are incensed by the ad campaign.
The gentlemanly cave-dwellers (part of the joke is that, aside from appearance, they are urbane types who go to fine restaurants and attend therapy regularly) are dissatisfied by Geico's response. Subsequent commercials reveal the travails of cavemen living in the 21st century.
The effort here seems to be to call attention to Geico as a hip company with a sense of humor and perspective. But it's far more notable for recognizing (and lampooning) an inescapable trend - controversial ads get noticed and the protests they generate serve both the protesters and the advertiser. The only missing elements are the hours of online gossip and lame-brain cable news coverage that are both spawned by, and help feed, these Madison Avenue-generated tempests-in-a-boob-tube.
And so this week's provocateurs - Super Bowl ads from Snickers that featured two homophobic mechanics accidentally kissing as they gobble a candy bar and another of a GM robot who dreams of dropping a screw, getting laid off and committing suicide (followed by an announcer proudly proclaiming the company's "obsession" with quality) - produced the predictable response. They had various special-interest groups wailing.
Ideally, these should have been organizations representing robots and rednecks, but alas, no word yet from members of the Star Wars cast, Hee Haw alumni or even Larry the Cable Guy. Instead, it was the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation leading the charge. GLAAD and its fellow anti-Snickers protesters succeeded first, convincing Mars subsidiary Masterfoods USA to stop showing the ad in the future.
But it's a small victory. The ad subsequently earned countless replays on the usual 24-hour news network venues and popular online video spots such as YouTube - along with its even-more-offensive alternate endings. GM decided yesterday to edit its ads, apparently only belatedly realizing that a company that has shoved tens of thousands of actual human beings out the door in recent years probably ought not be reminding people of that fact.
But both protest groups made their legitimate points - and got their names in the news. Will it make advertisers think twice before going controversial? Not likely. The only surprise is that more companies aren't following the formula - offend, spark protests, create a furor, pull ad and then watch it attract millions of online hits for many weeks to come.
Anyone who doubts this need only look at the trail of offensive TV ads of the past two years, from 50 Cent, a former drug dealer, pitching Reebok sneakers by counting aloud the bullets that have been fired at him, to Hardee's raunchy ad that had Paris Hilton eating a burger and washing a car. Pretty much every ad for the video series Girls Gone Wild can be deemed offensive by definition.
The same thing happens overseas. A British TV network's ads claiming, "Nothing good ever came out of America," and a Guinness ad set on board the Titanic where a bar patron says his "best pint is always the last" set off their share of fireworks in England and Ireland. Kia offended numerous Canadians with an ad depicting a female police officer getting intimate during a traffic stop.
Still, much of this could be forgiven if the ads were actually funny, but rarely do they hit the mark.
And what does such an approach say about Snickers customers anyway? Did the test marketers determine they'd guffaw at the sight of men pulling out their own chest hair? It's enough to make one switch to M&M;'s - or switch off the TV.