Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The GEICO Hydra

*** Below is a research paper with embedded video. This is for my Polpular Culture class. I wrote about the beast that is GEICO's marketing campaign(s). This is for my professor, but you can read it if you want. ****

The GEICO Hydra
By James Bezerra

In classical mythology, the Hydra is a nine-headed creature that can re-grow each of its heads if and when they are cut off (Hamilton, 164). The Hydra was so fear-inspiring because it was all but undefeatable. It was thought that no one person would be able to vanquish it simply because the creature was able to attack from so many directions all at once. Only the half-god Hercules was eventually able to defeat it, and even he couldn’t kill it. In the modern era this strategy of the Hydra has been co-opted by everyone from American military strategists, the terrorists whom they fight, and even, apparently, the boardrooms of marketing firms here in the United States. While the GEICO insurance company did not create this multi-headed marketing strategy, the company has employed it with astounding success over the past decade (

The Hydra effect of GEICO’s advertising manifests itself as a kind of multiple, independent ad campaign blitz. Rather than a centralized, single-message blitzkrieg, the advertising push is on multiple fronts, but it is not traditional niche marketing. What is happening is more complex than simply tailoring individual campaigns to individual but separate demographics. GEICO has recognized the fact that consumers have grown more savvy and discerning since the golden age of marketing and that commercials are now assessed based on their entertainment value and originality just as much (if not more) than on how well they present a product. Not to mention the fact that GEICO sells insurance, which is something of an intangible commodity. This is especially true for the younger demographic with which they have had so much success ( That is to say that while older consumer have likely had to deal with the frustration and bureaucracy of insurance companies, younger consumers have not yet experienced that, so to tap the younger (read: inexperienced) demographic, it is especially important to ingrain in them that GEICO is an insurance company and not just a gecko. This is one of the many reasons why GEICO’s hydra has so many heads, but there are other reasons, too.

There is a type of market saturation taking place where the assumption seems to be that the consumer has only a limited amount headspace available to store advertising information. The mind of the consumer is being treated as a random access memory of advertising that categorizes and sorts, but has only a finite amount of space available to store. This would be detrimental to a standard marketing campaign because a single logo, catchphrase, image, or spokesperson could then be neatly sorted into a folder in the consumer’s mind: ten folders for ten different insurance companies. By engaging in hydra-headed marketing, GEICO is effectively able to fill multiple folders. If a consumer will only remember ten car insurance campaigns, this strategy assures that five or six of them will be GEICO.

So the question quickly becomes, how is GEICO able to saturate the advertising market without over-saturating it and annoying its potential consumers? And why have they chosen to do this?

To answer these questions, it is important to understand the unique position GEICO enjoys within the insurance industry marketplace. While the company is quick to talk about its more than 70 years of experience in the industry (“GEICO and Warren Buffett” print ad), a history of the company is hard to come by. Why does GEICO chose to obscure its 70 years of experience when most companies go out of their way to showcase about it? The answer can be found on a page buried deep within their website on the “At a Glance” information page: At a Glance

GEICO (always shown in capitol letters) is actually an acronym that stands for Government Employees Insurance Company. Leo Goodwin, the company’s founder, as the website explains, “first targeted a customer base of U.S. government employees and military personnel”. In fact even today GEICO offers deeply discounted rates for Federal employees and members of the military ( This strategy garnered GEICO more than 1 million policyholders in less than thirty years and brought its net earning to more than $13 million by 1966 ( However, by the 1993 the company’s new chairman embarked on, what the website describes as, “… a new strategy to expand the customer base; increased focus on advertising results in higher national visibility” ( This new strategy made itself apparent in what we will call “The Gecko ads”. In the year 2000 GEICO began running ads featuring a frustrated computer-generated gecko whose frustration is linked to the fact that people trying to contact GEICO are instead contacting him. In this way GEICO was able to play on their own odd name rather than explain it. They were able to step away from their history as an insurer of government employees (which would have understandably forced the non-government-affiliated consumer to wonder if they could get GEICO insurance) and re-brand themselves as self-consciously witty, using simple wordplay as an excuse to introduce a lovable animal mascot. It is worth mentioning the Gecko had an English accent, which is a kind of code for sophisticated, but also funny. After making his plea to “stop calling me”.

The Gecko then licks his own eye, in a funny moment that emphasizes that while he is clearly intelligent, he is still a talking animal. Americans love talking animals. In later years the Gecko would evolve, his voice would change and he would be treated (by GEICO marketing) as a cultural icon. There is even a made-for-the-internet ad which masquerades as an episode of “E!: True Hollywood Story” wherein the Gecko’s rise to cultural prominence is chronicled.
The Real Scoop

These Gecko ads went a long way toward establishing a relationship with the young and media-savvy consumers the company was trying to capture. These are the younger consumers who did not have a history of buying insurance. Rather than competing head-to-head for market share with the insurance giants of the time (such as Allstate, which we will examine shortly), they went after an untapped market, those young adults who were media-savvy, but not insurance-savvy. By grabbing these consumers early, GEICO was planning for its future.

Now it is important to understand that these “younger consumers” are, in insurance speak, “non-standard” or “high-risk” drivers (Google Answers). GEICO was able to actively hunt for these “high-risk” drivers because of its strong base of “low-risk” drivers or, as Google Answers calls them, “… government employees and the top three grades of non-commissioned military officers” (Google Answers). These “high-risk” drivers, GEICO decided, were more apt to respond to marketing that played on the very idea of marketing it. In other words the campaigns stated, we are not your parents’ insurance company, we are not pandering to you.

This aspect of meta-marketing became even more pronounced when GEICO started running its “Caveman ads” in 2004 ( The original Caveman ad began as a standard, traditional (read: boring) ad wherein a middle-aged business executive was making a pitch to the camera about how easy GEICO insurance is to get and use. He then introduces the new (but fake) GEICO catchphrase, “So easy, a caveman could do it!” at which point a shout is heard off-camera. The camera pans around and we see that we are on the set of a commercial as it is being shot and the boom operator is, in fact, a caveman. The caveman is indignant, shouts, “Not cool!” and storms off the set.

Several more commercials play on this very same idea. A caveman on a business trip sees an ad in an airport that characterized cavemen as dumb. Another ad shows several sophisticated cavemen (one is using a laptop, another is playing a grand piano in the background) sitting around a posh and stark white apartment while the “commercial” from earlier plays on the television. “That is really condescending,” one of the cavemen says (Youtube: “Original Caveman ad”). This campaign goes on and on, each one playing on the idea that marketing is stupid and offensive. It forces the consumer to identify with the maligned segment of the population being portrayed in as dumb. It allows the consumer to feel disgusted by marketing. There is a complex system of symbols and associations being used here. To cautiously invalidate the argument that the cavemen could represent an African-American population being bombarded by blackface advertising, many of the ads show them involved in activities that are white-associated. One ad features a caveman using his metal detector on the beach while another shows a caveman competing in a professional tennis match opposite Billie Jean King. Interestingly, while enforcing the idea that the cavemen are not African-Americans, that ad also asserts that the tennis match has been rigged by GEICO so that the caveman can’t win.

So why create an ad campaign that vilifies your own company? GEICO was counting on the fact that its media-savvy target demographics would understand self-deprecating meta-marketing. It seems to have worked too, because by 2007 GEICO had increased its market share to 8 million policyholders and then, staggeringly, to 9 million by 2009 ( There is an element of this meta-marketing in most of GEICO’s hydra marketing campaigns, especially in its “Celebrity” campaign wherein a real person is paired with a celebrity. Each commercial opens by saying, Person X is, “a real GEICO customer, not a paid celebrity, so to help tell his story, we hired a celebrity".

In another interesting aspect of GEICO’s hydra-headed marketing, it has allowed for cross-pollination between its complex television ads and its simpler print and online advertising. The Gecko often appears in print ads, but the subversive meta-marketing aspect has been dropped. In a sense, GEICO has gone traditional with its print and online campaigns, so much so that it has entire campaigns which are traditionally niche marketed. In a NEWSWEEK magazine ad from June 2008 a GEICO ad features a black and white photo of a painted VW bus and the text: “Survive the ‘60s? You deserve special treatment” (NEWSWEEK June 16, 2008). The ad highlights the aspects of GEICO’s products and services that would be appealing to the aging Baby Boomer, while participating in a generic kind of nostalgia. Incidentally, the NEWSWEEK in question ran a cover story asking whether or not the already existing economic slowdown would constitute, “A New Kind of Recession”.

This is traditional niche marketing, so much so that everybody is doing it. An Allstate print ad in the next week’s issue of NEWSWEEK highlighted the fact that teens text while driving (NEWSWEEK June 23, 2008). Clearly this is an ad aimed at the same aging Baby Boomers. Allstate’s commitment to traditional forms of niche marketing becomes even more pronounced on the internet. There it runs mini banner-ads on the popular social networking site Facebook. Some of those ads even cater to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered community, a kind of niche marketing that we be virtually impossible on television (“Equality is Our Policy” ad). GEICO does not have to engage in this kind of so-specific-it-borders-on-pandering kind of niche marketing because its hydra has probably already gotten to them somewhere else.

This subtlety vs. blatancy, has been made even more apparent advertising that responds to recent changes in America’s economic landscape. GEICO did what Allstate could not, it allowed the separate heads of its hydra campaigns to support one another. A GEICO print ad in the October 12, 2009 NEWSWEEK, demonstrated this. The ad obtusely deals with the economic quasi-depression by featured both the Gecko and the name of still-very-rich businessman Warren Buffet. The text of the ad plays up the long-standing connection between Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway and GEICO (Buffet first purchased GEICO stock in 1951 while still a student at Columbia and in 1996 GEICO became a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway []). Here GEICO used its (originally subversive) Gecko campaign to cross-pollinate with its Baby Boomer-focused campaign.

That other giant of the insurance industry, Allstate also tried to adapt to the current economic situation, but, unable to cross-pollinate seriousness and whimsy (as GEICO had), it brought to the foreground several things that had been latent in its previous advertising. Allstate has long featured the African-American actor Dennis Haysbert. Haysbert has long been a much-respected character actor, but little more. He has a smooth and reassuring bass voice (similar to James Earl Jones, whose voice was deemed so trustworthy that he was long the voice of CNN.

It is entirely possible that Haysbert is the spokesperson for Allstate because he is tall and attractive and inspires confidence. Those are surely the same qualities that landed him the role of David Palmer on the television show “24”. During the show’s first season, Haysbert’s David Palmer played the first ever African-American to run for President of the United States. The character was a bastion of virtue and (in later seasons) was often shown wrestling with the immoral questions that come up when battling terrorism. In short, he became something of America’s preparation for Barak Obama. Haysbert himself told The Huffington Post, "If anything, my portrayal of David Palmer, I think, may have helped open the eyes of the American people," (The Huffington Post). So in a television ad that ran in January of 2009, Allstate responded to the economy by showing Haysbert wandering through something like a Great Depression museum while extolling, “It’s back to basics, and the basics are good. Protect them. Put them . . . in good hands”. Since Allstate couldn’t get the President of the United States to endorse them, they got the next best thing, the actor who (believes he) laid the mental and associative groundwork for President Obama.

While it is arguable that Allstate’s is an effective commercial, it forced them to sacrifice that one thing on which marketing campaigns depend: slight-of-hand. The advertising industry does not want consumers to understand how they are being played upon. The consumer finds it distasteful to know that their very emotions are being used against them. As a result, the inner-workings of marketing campaigns have to be obscured. Allstate was forced to pull back the curtain on their machinations and all but spell out, everything is fine, our Presidential stand-in says so.

GEICO did not need to expose themselves in this way because they had their plucky Gecko. If that hadn’t worked, they had an entire Hanna Barbera-esque cast to roll out, which they did anyway. One of the latest GEICO campaigns features a literal stack of money (with eyes), it is said to be the money that the consumer could be saving by switching to GEICO".

In a different time, this might have been too blatant of a gimmick, however, even this has been well-received by GEICO’s audience, which is, by now, essentially a fan-base. On the website, Marsha Hill gushed, “The Geico money bundle has no gender or race. It just has eyes and the suggestion of a nose and mouth. One thing it does have is presence. It just sits there but that's all it has to do. It's effective, relevant, likable. There is no judgement (sic) in those eyes. They are not beady or threatening. They do not mock. There is no pride behind those eyes. They are completely honest!” (

In reacting to the challenge of difficult economic times GEICO’s hydra has just grown new heads. On an open forum message board called, dedicated to “collective intelligence”, a woman who identifies herself only as NOVA, gave the best explanation of (and only justification needed for) GEICO’s marketing hydra. She wrote, “I approve of the variety – if I had to see any one of them as often as I see all of them I would hate them with a passion”.

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