The Scene is the Same, But Not the Message

I know, I know. How tired we all are with these commercials. Especially the big three of insurance commercials: Geico, Progressive, and Liberty Mutual. Nationwide and Allstate are not far behind in frequency.

I actually enjoy watching these ads for the most part (caveat coming). And apparently, so do enough viewers that Geico recently had a website by which you could vote among ten of their ads for your favorite (my fave was not among the ten listed candidates).

But Geico has a somewhat unique position in this. They’ve had different series running for some time now, to include themes like the caveman and the gecko. The gecko has his own long-running gig going and that may run for much longer yet. But they’ve had one-offs with things like the camel and then the absurd series with the zen gardener and the karate wood chopper. Geico’s creative agency has limitless ideas.

Then there’s Progressive, with only two themes: Flo and Jimmy for one, and then the “box” for the other. No one seems to know what the box is (other than to represent the insurance policy), but his lounge lizard persona actually makes me laugh. And I’m glad for Progressive that they have that box, because—and here’s my caveat—Flo and Jimmy can’t go away fast enough for my tastes. And that’s what works for Geico: they change it up often enough that you don’t tire of any of their themes.

Liberty Mutual has had their ad series (“Liberty Stands with You”) of using the backdrop of the Hudson River/Statue of Liberty going now for around five years. The top two visuals are examples of the actors questioning the accepted standards of competing insurance companies (“What good is insurance if you get charged for using it?”). I liked that series, because each actor brought a different slant on how insurance is used or abused from the standpoint of the consumer.

But lately, Liberty Mutual has taken a different direction while still using the backdrop for their “Only Pay for What You Need” campaign. They’re writing humorous spots now, such as the cycler with “customized” calves and the guy who’s in the witness protection program. What changed? Did Liberty think they were missing out on something? Did one of the account execs decide that Liberty was taking itself too seriously?

The answer is yes and yes. Liberty Mutual decided that the old style in this series was too staid. The earlier versions were informative, but feedback was that family viewers were gliding right over the ads without really looking while they were fixing their evening meals. The ad execs were getting a little frustrated that Geico’s ads were watercooler gabfest material and their’s were not. A change had to be made.

Exit Havas Worldwide ad agency, enter Goodby Silverstein & Partners. According to GSP’s executive creative director David Suarez, “The evolution we made was just to give those customers a little more color and let it be more overtly funny versus the traditional testimonial style. The clients were hungry for the work to be more breakthrough.” Suarez’s team brought in the creative minds from Barton F. Graf (known for Little Caesar’s) to inject the absurd humor angles. And apparently, Liberty Mutual is happy with the results.

Personally, I would’ve changed up the backdrop to differentiate the new attitude. Liberty broke the sequence—the consistency—with the absurd humor angle. Sure, the Statue is their monogram. But “liberty” can be stated in so many different ways. Liberty doesn’t have to be so literal. Freedom can be a synonymous underlying theme, something that might be nice for insurance companies to examine.

And so, another thing to consider is this: does every commercial have to be funny? If too many ads on TV are of the humor variety, your funny commercial starts to get lost in the shuffle. Sometimes a serious series of commercials—depending on placement—can be way more effective.

Either way, the issue I have here is in the packaging: the series looks the same at first inspection, most probably because Liberty Mutual has fallen in love with the backdrop. And if you the viewer are not attuned to the new script angle, you’ll ignore the commercials because the scenery hasn’t changed.

My take from this is that Liberty Mutual has already missed several million new viewers.

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Progressive Never Gets It Right

I know I’ve talked about Progressive Insurance before, but I love beating a dead horse—this one, anyway.

In the past, I spoke about TV ads for Charter Communications’ Spectrum and how well they were designed and scripted. Their “monster” series was the freshest I’d seen in years, and in the article I posted, I referred to a copycat ad from Progressive using the same scenario (monster under the child’s bed).

Well here we are, boys and girls, in the fall of 2018 and Progressive is still at it. They see something they like and admire. Then they copy it. Not an original bone in their collective bodies, whoever the creatives are at Arnold Worldwide.

The left visual is from the latest in a series from Geico. And I’ve written about this series which started with the “zen gardening” spot. This series of ads is original and quirky and is among the best ad efforts in recent memory. The thinking is fresh and leaves the viewer wanting to see it again and again, if only to figure whom the ads are for—which is OK. They’ve gathered your attention with your first viewing and made you wonder; after that, they have you once you see it’s Geico.

That’s the thing about television. The medium isn’t like print or the web. Television advertisers know that they buy ad space that allows repeated commercial air times, and that in turn allows them to capture your attention. They can sidestep the old advertising adage about making sure the consumer gets it right the first time to avoid confusion.

I remember a series of ads that ran in a magazine decades ago depicting a brand of alcoholic beverage. They’d run a teaser on one page of the publication one week, then another the next week, and finally the last ad in the third week which would then reveal everything you needed to know about it. Not a very good ad campaign as it turned out: it left readers disinterested by the second week.

But TV ads are ubiquitous and run often enough that you can’t miss them, and if they’re interesting enough—such as the Geico series—we actually want to see them again. Which is the best thing an advertiser can hope for.

Which is what Progressive can only dream about. With characters like Flo and Jamie, viewers get irritated and tired of bad ad ideas and then recognize plagiarism when they see it.

In the Geico spot at left, the series has already laid the groundwork with careful scripting and one-time characters for each spot. So it’s easy to accept the format knowing we’ll see a new entry each time. It’s soft sell wrapped in a quirky setting.

With the spot at right, Progressive not only tries too hard with the offbeat premise, they feel they need to explain the situation with characters (including the long tiresome Flo) who are watching the scene from the background. This is hard sell unwrapped as counterfeit.

And this is the real difference: Geico doesn’t need to explain anything, knowing that viewers are sophisticated enough to pick up the idea behind the absurdity of the theme, while Progressive doesn’t give the viewing audience credit for that.

Progressive is smart enough to know what works, but only after they see their competitor’s ads. In trying to top them, it fails miserably.

 

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The Non Sequitur

You have to hand it to Geico. They never give up.

And this latest round of commercials, from without doubt the leading advertiser in insurance on television, is genius. At first, you might say, “What’s the point?” But subsequent viewings—which I’m more than certain Geico would like you to experience—will demonstrate that there is just a thread of visual connection to the message.

They probably sat around in a conference room and thought how far out they could go to make the visuals as absurd as they could get away with and yet keep the viewers interested just by the craziness of them. They aren’t funny in the conventional sense. But it all sounds perfect to me.

The latest one running in this series (there have been many series, starting with the caveman) has an actor portraying Alexander Graham Bell with his invention sitting in a balcony of a theater, then answering his telephone during the play running onstage. Who takes his/her phone with them to a play? We do—in our pockets or purse. But never mind. It’s the absurdity of hearing the newfound contraption ringing in the balcony, a la 1875.

And of course, Geico segues into the sales pitch eloquently enough, with just a thread of connection to the scene.

The visual at left was the first in this series. Called “Zen Gardener“, it has this worried renter trying to do some gardening with sand in his apartment. In walks his girlfriend who talks him into looking into Geico because he’s worried about coverage or expense or whatever. She tells him she’s been using Geico for years, then helps him clean up by going to the closet to retrieve the dustpan, and when she opens the door, another cubic yard of sand spills out. It’s ridiculous, totally absurd. But by that time, the voiceover tells us, “Get to know Geico to see how easy getting homeowner’s and renter’s insurance can be.”

The visual at right follows the same premise, only in this scene we see the guy on the left with the same concerns about his insurance who tries to sublimate by collecting and snapping bubble wrap (his walls are covered in it, too). Again, absurd.

The thing that Geico has latched onto is knowing how TV commercials are watched by the current viewing public. And that is with one eye at best and no eyes most of the time.

Commercials are just another thing to be avoided by most TV viewers. And of course a widely growing TV audience is searching for ever creative ways to do that avoiding, not the least of which is recording their pet shows on their DVR and zipping past the commercials when they view those recordings later.

And of course, the contemporary audience has more places on the proverbial dial to switch to at any given hour. Television is so vast compared to what it was even twenty years ago. And advertisers find every nook and cranny to fill all the ad spots they can afford.

But being different is still king in getting viewers’ attention. In all design, from package design to automobile design, having a different angle, a different viewpoint, a different way to make people see and think, that has always been and will continue to be the ticket to having consumers take notice.

And once you have their attention, the rest is easy.

 

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Where’s the Correlation?

  

TV advertising is becoming more and more disconnected. By that, I mean there are many commercials that stretch the correlation between the client’s product and the theme or initial message of the ad.

A prime example of this is the latest T-Mobile ad that shows a couple returning home after an evening out only to find a sassy babysitter wisecracking about her hourly rate increases while wearing the housewife’s shoes.

Then the ad closes with a few taglines for T-Mobile—which has absolutely nothing to do with the couple’s situation nor the babysitter. It’s a complete disconnect. I’ve seen the ad several times, and there’s nothing. It could’ve been an ad for skin cream or home security.

I’m not sure what happens in the minds of the copywriters in this way of thinking. I’m sure they think there’s a minor shock value in the babysitter’s snappy reaction to the parents’ inquiries. You watch the interaction between her and the parents and it does catch your attention. But I had to see the ad a few times to catch that it’s a T-Mobile ad.

If it weren’t for their signature hot pink color branding in the last few seconds of the ad, you would’ve missed it, too. Not a good idea.

I have a brother-in-law who’s done a lot of copywriting for ad agencies, and we discussed this disconnect. His theory is that ad agencies’ copywriters are beginning to hate writing for these kinds of commercials. Either it’s that or this commercial’s editing staff left too much on the cutting room floor. It’s also possible that this way of thinking is the new soft-sell approach. But the disconnect is so wide that it does not work.

Here’s the thing: it does appear to be a small trend. I say small to refer to a small number of advertisers doing this kind of ad, but I also say trend to say there will be more coming, if not a large number. I hope not.

There are however, advertisers who stretch the correlation and yet keep it as a comparative statement. Geico is one.

The latest Geico ad has a scene in a pharmacy with Boyz II Men singing the side effects of a prescription to a woman. Then the voiceover explains that Boyz II Men can make anything sound good (it’s what they do), and that if you want to save 15% or more on car insurance, you can call Geico (it’s what you do).

A small connection, but it’s just enough to make it work.

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Observations on Perception, Part 1

 

This entry will be the first in a secondary series about perception in advertising and how it plays an important part in what makes things sell.

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You know, the fashion and cosmetic industries have something going for them that only a few other realms in the ad world are recognizing. But not all of those areas can actually use that something and have it come off nearly as well. It’s that British accent they use to promote their products.

Why is that? What is it that advertisers are trying to do, having their voiceovers done by a Brit? Look at this:

  • The Geico gecko is voiced by actor Jake Wood, a Brit
  • Cottonelle toilet paper is voiced by English actress Cherry Healy
  • Orbit gum is voiced by English-born Vanessa Branch
  • Victoria’s Secret ads voiced by Elizabeth Sastre, also a Brit

According to Brian Wheeler, writing for BBC News in Washington, D.C., fantasy and science fiction on television is best enjoyed by viewers when the predominant accent in those shows is British. He points out that the accent is “sufficiently exotic” to put the mind of the viewer in a different reality.

But if that transports the viewer—at least temporarily (remember, we’re discussing perception here)—to a different reality, how does that thinking translate to TV commercials?

Somehow, in this country anyway, we’ve come to the point of making subliminal judgments about social status, based not so much on what is said, but who says it and just how it is said—what accent is used. British accents, according to polls, are judged to reflect intelligence. That same commercial for Victoria’s Secret just wouldn’t be the same if delivered in either a Mississippi or Boston accent.

French is too provincial and Spanish not high-brow enough. None of this is based on statistics. It just is. Apparently, the fashion and cosmetics industries decided this was the way to go. It works for them. And for them, it translates to viewers that they are getting the best for their money. And that perception translates then to dollars, because that’s all part of the packaging aspect. And they can charge more.

And so Jaguar and Land Rover use British voiceovers. Of course, those are British products. It only makes sense here. But now Lexus is doing it, and that looks and sounds foolish, because Lexus is made by Toyota, a Japanese manufacturer.

Who are they kidding?

 

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