Advertising Educational Foundation

[Editor’s Note: This article is a part of ADText A revised version of this article is available here here.]

Fig. 1. An Elegantly Simple and Highly Effective Ad from the 1960s []
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Fig. 1.

An Elegantly Simple and Highly Effective Ad from the 1960s [Source]

Advertising agencies typically have creative departments where print ads, TV commercials, and other marketing communications are produced. These departments are staffed by writers who craft the words in advertisements, graphic artists who plan and construct visual layouts, and other specialists who help in the transformation of strategy into actual advertisements. The creatives (as they tend to be called by insiders) are the artists hired by advertising agencies to use their creative and expressive talents in the service of producing advertisements.1 inline graphic inline graphic

1. What is Creativity?

Creativity tends to be one of those you-know-it-when-you-see-it things that eludes a specific definition. Many people who others have considered highly creative have attempted to explain the creative process. Here are some of their ideas: inline graphic inline graphic

C. G. Jung, Psychoanalyst

The creative aspect of life which finds its clearest expression in art baffles all attempts at rational formulation. Any reaction to stimulus may be causally explained; but the creative act, which is the absolute antithesis of mere reaction, will for ever elude the human understanding.2 inline graphic inline graphic

Nina DiSesa, Chairman, McCann Erickson New York

I tell my creative people to use their talent and judgment to solve the problem, because if the advertising isn’t uncommon and imaginative, no one will like it. Only your mother. And even she will get bored in time.3 The reason people often say they think of things in the shower is that it’s the only time we allow our brains to relax and open up. We’re so intense. We’re so driven. We also drink a lot of water. Because when you drink a lot of water, you go to the bathroom, and when you come back, you say to your partner, “Hey, I just got an idea.”4 inline graphic inline graphic

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Musician

When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer—say, travelling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them.5 inline graphic inline graphic

Bill Bernbach, Former Chairman & CEO, Doyle, Dane, Bernbach (now DDB)

Merely to let your imagination run riot, to dream unrelated dreams, to indulge in graphic acrobatics and verbal gymnastics is not being creative. The creative person has harnessed his imagination. He has disciplined it so that every thought, every idea, every word he puts down, every line he draws, every light and shadow in every photograph he takes make more vivid, more believable, more persuasive the original theme or product advantage he has decided he must convey.6 inline graphic inline graphic

Charles Mingus, Musician

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity. inline graphic inline graphic

Robert Weisberg, Psychologist, Temple University

Early scholars, among them Plato and Aristotle, speculated on how creative ideas came about. It was proposed originally by the Greeks that creative ideas were gifts from the gods. Specifically, the Muses—nine daughters of Zeus, each of whom was in charge of a separate domain—played a central role in producing novel ideas. This meant that not only did the ideas originate outside the normal thinking process, they actually originated outside the person. The person served as the messenger or conduit through which the ideas were presented from the gods to the rest of us.7 inline graphic inline graphic

These ideas highlight some critical features of the creative process. First, it is extraordinarily hard to define precisely how creativity works. Second, creativity is an art that is not subject to specific rules. Third, creativity cannot simply be called into existence. Fourth, creativity often means proposing elegantly simple expressions of complex issues. Fifth, truly creative people express ideas that are not just personal opinions but also expressions of essential truths. inline graphic inline graphic

2. Creativity in Advertising Today

Familiarize yourself with the meaning of terms used in the business of advertising by visiting this or thiswebsite.

A typical creative team might consist of a writer, an art director, an account planner, and an account manager who work together to produce ads, commercials, and other marketing communications. The team begins with a strategy that has been agreed upon by the agency and the client. A strategy is a statement of the goal of a campaign, such as communicating a particular message about the brand to a particular group of consumers. The strategy, which operates at a general level, can be expressed in specific creative briefs, or directives to creative teams about the specific message they need to communicate and to whom they are to direct it. It then becomes the work of the creative team to devise ways of communicating the message. inline graphic inline graphic

The team, or possibly some portion of it, will begin concepting—in other words, brainstorming—about possible ways to communicate the message to the intended audience. For some of the team’s best ideas, the art director will draw images or even storyboards and the writer will produce the headlines and words to accompany them. The account planner will attempt to keep the team focused and on mission by feeding in information about how consumers use the brand, what market research reveals, what the competition’s advertising says, and so on. The account manager coordinates and oversees the team’s work. inline graphic inline graphic

Eventually, when a number of working ideas have been developed by the creative team, they are presented to the client, who responds to them. When the client and agency agree upon a proposal for consumer communication (that may take the form of a print advertisement, a TV commercial, a billboard, a website, etc.), the creative process moves into production. Throughout the production phase, the creative process continues as new words and images are revised and additional information helps tweak the final product. inline graphic inline graphic

Before the creative idea is communicated through appropriately selected media (such as TV, outdoor, digital, etc.), various other steps may be taken. The communication may be tested, reedited, or otherwise adjusted to the point where both agency and client believe they have produced the best communication strategy for the brand. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 2. A Sticker Placed on a High Voltage Box in Malaysia is a Creative Way to Communicate with Consumers []
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Fig. 2.

A Sticker Placed on a High Voltage Box in Malaysia is a Creative Way to Communicate with Consumers [Source]

Fig. 3. These Images on Shopping Bags Are an Innovative Way to Attract Consumer Attention []
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Fig. 3.

These Images on Shopping Bags Are an Innovative Way to Attract Consumer Attention [Source]

3. The Creative Revolution of the 1960s

The concept of creativity in advertising was not discussed much until the 1960s, when a sea change in the way of producing advertising transformed the field forever. The central feature of this Creative Revolution was that creativity came to be valued over the formulas and research that previously drove the production of ads. inline graphic inline graphic

Creative teams, a mainstay of nearly all agencies since the 1960s, did not exist prior to that time.8 The reigning paradigm was reason-why advertising that spoke to consumers in terms of unique selling propositions (USPs). The chief proponent of this approach was Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates Advertising Agency in New York City. In retrospect, Reeves must be considered one of the great figures of 20th-century American advertising, but both he and his approach lost favor as the Creative Revolution got underway. inline graphic inline graphic

The very nameRosser Reevesstands for an approach to writing advertisements that was popular in the 1950s. View the original Anacin commercial onYou Tube.

A look at one of Reeves’s best known TV commercials shows the essence of his approach. Reeves graphically depicted different pains and claimed that Anacin would relieve them all. This no-nonsense approach specified a USP: Anacin relieves all types of pain. Reeves (and those who followed him) produced hard-hitting advertising of this sort; it worked by hammering messages into consumers’ minds, sometimes rather literally. Consumers did not like these ads much, even if they understood the messages. Critics within advertising felt the ads lacked any subtlety, finesse, or creativity. A new wave in advertising style in the 1960s would produce ads that were both highly communicative and liked by consumers. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 4. An Example of Rosser Reeves’s USP Approach to Advertising []
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Fig. 4.

An Example of Rosser Reeves’s USP Approach to Advertising [Source]

In addition to the hard-sell of Reeves’s USP advertising, other 1950s ads focused entirely on aspirational culture. They featured dreamy, romantic visions in which the problems of everyday life magically disappeared and happiness reigned. These ads credited the advertised products with the ability to effect magical transformations of reality so that the affluent and satisfied consumers in them could live in perfect families and immaculate houses. For example, the ad in Figure 15.5 features a Leave-It-to-Beaver-like happy family that drinks 7-Up. In the 1950s, ads for other products, like cigarettes and automobiles, were similarly detached from the reality of everyday life. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 5. This 1950s Ad Idealizes the American Family []
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Fig. 5.

This 1950s Ad Idealizes the American Family [Source]

Fig. 6. The Soft Tones of this Ad Evoke a Romantic Image of 1950s Femininity []
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Fig. 6.

The Soft Tones of this Ad Evoke a Romantic Image of 1950s Femininity [Source]

Fig. 7. 1950s Advertising Presented Lily-white Images of Americans []
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Fig. 7.

1950s Advertising Presented Lily-white Images of Americans [Source]

While ads played by accepted rules, those who created them were recruited from a rather closed fraternity of men who had been educated in Ivy League and other elite schools. Nearly all had white Anglo-Saxon establishment backgrounds. Few women held positions of importance in advertising at that time. Most were secretaries and administrative assistants. There were virtually no Jews, Italians, African Americans, or other “minorities.” inline graphic inline graphic

The Creative Revolution changed not only the ground rules for making advertising, but also the kinds of people who were recruited into the business. The kingpin of the revolution was Bill Bernbach, originally an advertising copywriter, who became one of the most charismatic and revered figures of 20th-century advertising. In retrospect, he may have been the single most important figure in 20th-century American advertising. inline graphic inline graphic

Bill Bernbach’sname is synonymous with the revolution in advertising creativity that took place in the 1960s.

Bernbach’s genius lay in placing creativity before research. He abhorred rules and turned away from programmatic approaches to advertising. He believed that advertising needed to respect the public’s intelligence and communicate through simple, clear, and precise images and words. His work was often as witty as it was sophisticated. The ads he created for Volkswagen in the 1960s are typically cited as the most famous advertising campaign of the 20th century, and they are credited with transforming a German-made “people’s car” into an American icon. His stark black-and-white photographs of the car against white backgrounds broke all the conventional rules. His well chosen words, “Think Small” and “Lemon,” communicated forcefully. Bernbach also opened recruitment policies of his agency (Doyle, Dane, Bernbach) to the most qualified people he could find, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. By the 1970s, other agencies began adopting his approach and policies. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 8. Think Small []
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Fig. 8.

Think Small [Source]

Fig. 9. Lemon []
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Fig. 9.

Lemon [Source]

Instead of simply presenting the product benefit, Bernbach’s advertising developed the product’s image. He positioned the Volkswagen as the anti-establishment, economic alternative to the gas guzzling cars Detroit was producing. In another campaign for Levy’s Jewish Rye (Figure 15.1), he proposed what would today be called an inclusive approach. His ads for Levy’s communicated the simple message that “Jewish” rye bread could be enjoyed by people of all sorts. Today, this campaign would resonate with contemporary issues concerning diversity, but at the time it was revolutionary in that ethnicity was brought into advertising and spoken of in positive, inclusive language. inline graphic inline graphic

Bernbach articulated his philosophy of the preeminence of creativity over formulaic advertising in a memorandum to his company, “It is our belief that every other activity in our business is a prelude to the final performance, which is the ad.”9 The effect of this statement was to place creativity before the other services of an advertising agency—market research, media analysis, and other support functions. inline graphic inline graphic

David Ogilvy was known for his definitive rules about how to write good advertising.

In his book The Conquest of Cool (1997), historian Thomas Frank credits two other figures with major roles in the Creative Revolution—David Ogilvy and Leo Burnett.10 Ogilvy first worked in market research before designing ads and eventually heading his own agency, now known as Ogilvy & Mather. He wrote Confessions of An Advertising Man (1963), an enormously popular book with the American public. He took readers inside the world of advertising by talking to them about his ideas of what great advertising is. Unlike Bernbach, Ogilvy proposed rules for good advertising. These rules about how ads should be written broke with many previous ideas. inline graphic inline graphic

Different from Bernbach’s, Ogilvy’s ads were also highly creative. They worked by finding new ways to attract the attention of customers and to communicate simple, clear messages that they would remember. Ogilvy created the Hathaway Man to sell Hathaway shirts and Commander Whitehead to sell Schweppes. These intriguing figures helped the respective brands achieve iconic status. Ogilvy’s ad for Rolls-Royce is typical of his approach—a single illustration followed by long copy explaining the brand to the reader. His best-known slogan for Rolls-Royce, “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock,” may not have sold many cars, but it greatly enhanced the prestige associated with owning one. The Rolls is a symbol of affluence and luxury. Ogilvy’s advertising was designed to keep it that way. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 10. Ogilvy’s Ads Typically Had Long, Engaging Headlines []
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Fig. 10.

Ogilvy’s Ads Typically Had Long, Engaging Headlines [Source]

Leo Burnett created a distinctive “Chicago” style of advertising.

Leo Burnett, taking a different tack in his Chicago-based agency, created many of advertising’s greatest icons for his clients during the 1960s. Ronald McDonald, the Keebler Elves, the Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Clean, Tony the Tiger, and the Pillsbury Doughboy all appeared out of Leo Burnett’s creative shop. Burnett’s advertising using them developed brand recognition, favored status among consumers, and marketplace loyalty. inline graphic inline graphic

Frank argues that the Creative Revolution was advertising’s response to the momentous changes and social transformations taking place in the wider society during the 1960s. Just as a distrust of the establishment characterized a major trend in American society, the advertising revolutionaries of the 1960s balked at their own establishment and its rules. Ads poked fun at advertising and refused to continue promoting dreamy, romantic visions. Instead, they talked openly to consumers for the first time; they urged them to “think small” and look beyond fluff and empty promises. The 1960s was a period in which advertising underwent its own transformation—one that more-or-less paralleled the changes occurring in the wider society. inline graphic inline graphic

4. Creativity in Contemporary Advertising

ViewClio award winners for recent years at the AEF website.

Each year the advertising industry recognizes the work it considers to be its best. The Clio Awards and the International Advertising Festival at Cannes use panels of international experts to decide which advertisements (film/TV, print, and other forms) are the most outstanding in terms of creativity and other aspects. Winning one of these awards is a mark of high prestige for an agency, team, or individual. inline graphic inline graphic

The best advertising spots are also recognized each year during the Super Bowl when the public voices its opinions. USA Today as well as numerous television stations and other newspapers and magazines play up this event, in part because it is advertising that supports these media outlets, but also because the public seems to enjoy this singular opportunity to give its direct feedback about what is good and what is bad in advertising (see Unit 4). inline graphic inline graphic

The remainder of this chapter is devoted to case studies of two advertising campaigns widely judged by both advertising practitioners and the public to be creative and effective communications. These are the GEICO automobile insurance campaigns and the Dove soap “Real Beauty” campaign. inline graphic inline graphic

5. Kudos in Creativity: The Martin Agency’s Work for GEICO

VisitThe Martin Agency to learn about its history and clients and to view some of its work.

While it is true that advertising agencies tend to be concentrated in New York, Chicago, and other major metropolitan areas in the United States, some highly creative shops can also be found in smaller cities like Portland, Minneapolis, Boulder, and Richmond. The Martin Agency, located in Richmond, Virginia, is a full service advertising agency that has produced some of the most creative and memorable American advertising in recent years. GEICO, a car insurance company, has been one of its key accounts since 1994. inline graphic inline graphic

The location of GEICO’s headquarters in nearby Maryland facilitates interaction between agency and client, but the more important fact may be that Martin’s employees live in a moderately-sized city where many people actually own cars, unlike the bigger cities where many people do not. The trade publication Creativity sized up the Martin Agency’s location in Virginia this way:

In this wired world, the Martin Agency’s location doesn’t pose a creative or competitive disadvantage (the shop does have two small New York offices for some of its broadcast media and interactive work); in some ways the company sees its Richmond digs as a distinct advantage. It’s a notion that may garner more than a few industry sneers, but both [President Mike] Hughes and [Creative Director Steve] Bassett say because the minivan-and-mall lifestyle rules in Richmond, it puts them closer to the average American consumer…. says Hughes, “I think it helps all of us that we live like our audience lives.” Bassett adds, “If you’re single, don’t have a car and hang out in bars every night, you may not be in touch with a woman in Ohio who needs to buy diapers.”11 inline graphic inline graphic

The agency uses a somewhat unusual method for getting GEICO’s message to potential consumers: they run several different campaigns simultaneously. These differing approaches cast a wider net than any single approach can. Four of these campaigns will be described below: “Gecko,” “Good News,” “Testimonial,” and “Cavemen.” Behind each of these campaigns lay some very simple, but fundamental propositions: (1) switching car insurance is easy, and (2) switching can save money. Almost all GEICO approaches carry the tagline, “15 minutes could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance.” inline graphic inline graphic

Even the early commercials that The Martin Agency produced for GEICO were as unconventional as they were humorous. One featured a squirrel giving a “high five” to another squirrel after successfully dodging what might have been an accident. Another featured a faux reality show in which a couple lives in an impossibly tiny house for a year. inline graphic inline graphic

An Early Martin Agency Commercial for GEICO (2001) []
Fig. 11.

An Early Martin Agency Commercial for GEICO (2001) [Source]

This GEICO Commercial Parodies Reality Shows (2004) []
Fig. 12.

This GEICO Commercial Parodies Reality Shows (2004) [Source]

As the relationship between the client company and the agency matured, the advertising strategy became more sharply defined. This definitional process was helped by insights from focus groups and other consumer research. The research identified barriers that inhibit people from switching their car insurance from one company to another. Using this information, the agency and the client worked together to develop a specific strategy—to break down the barriers that keep consumers from switching. Specific targets included widely held consumer beliefs like:

  • Insurance is scary, and I don’t want to think about it

  • It’s hard to switch and will take a lot of time

  • It’s not worth my time

  • Insurance is boring—who wants to talk about insurance anyway? inline graphic inline graphic

The Martin Agency developed the now famous tagline to communicate the essence of GEICO. In the tagline are two specific promises to consumers. First, “15 minutes” promises that getting a rate quote will be quick and easy. Second, “save 15 percent or more” promises that it will be worthwhile to get a rate quote from GEICO. These themes echo throughout the campaigns. inline graphic inline graphic

The Gecko

GEICO began to use a talking gecko to get its message out in 1999. Originally planned for only a single commercial, the gecko soon proved useful; when actors went on strike the following year, the gecko allowed Martin to continue producing commercials for GEICO. The public response to the gecko proved highly positive, and the company extended its use in advertising communications, including print, billboards, and gecko-branded merchandise. Since his introduction, the talking gecko “spokesperson” has become one of the most identifiable and recognized advertising icons of all time—ranking alongside the likes of Ronald McDonald, Juan Valdez, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and Tony the Tiger. inline graphic inline graphic

The story of how The Martin Agency came up with the gecko reflects the inspirational and serendipitous nature of creativity in advertising. Steve Bassett, Creative Director of The Martin Agency, explains:

He was actually drawn on a napkin in a Santa Monica restaurant by an art director12 after a shoot. The client was saying, “You know, we really have a hard time with people remembering the name GEICO. It’s hard to pronounce. Wonder what we could do about that?” And the art director drew this little gecko character and said to the client, “Maybe we could do something with this to help people remember.”13 inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 13. The Original Gecko Was Drawn on a Napkin
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Fig. 13.

The Original Gecko Was Drawn on a Napkin

by a Creative Director in 1999 [Source]

Although the commercials are planned at Martin’s offices in Richmond, the agency goes outside for artwork and voicing. Looking for the best voice to give to the gecko, the creative team auditioned tens of voices—with British accents, California surfer dude accents, Bronx accents, Western farmer accents, etc.—before finally settling on a British upper class accent. There was apparently no particular rhyme or reason for the choice other than the fact that the creative director in charge at the time liked a British accent more than others and decided to go with it. inline graphic inline graphic

This Commercial Features the Gecko’s Original Accent (2000) []
Fig. 14.

This Commercial Features the Gecko’s Original Accent (2000) [Source]

Steve Bassett joined the GEICO account as creative director after the gecko had been introduced. One of his refinements, in his own words, was “to shift the humor from Benny Hill to David Letterman, making it more cerebral, more sophisticated, and letting consumers connect the dots for themselves.” He felt these changes would engage consumers more and increase the power of the humor in communicating GEICO’s message. inline graphic inline graphic

Under Bassett’s watch the gecko character has continued to evolve. His accent has changed, and he’s been given more facial expressions. The voice remains British, but it is more everyday and less aristocratic. Innovations in computer graphics have allowed the artists to give him eyelids and facial lines, providing the gecko with a greater range of expressions. inline graphic inline graphic

The Gecko Has Evolved in this Commercial (2005) []
Fig. 15.

The Gecko Has Evolved in this Commercial (2005) [Source]

The story of the gecko illustrates several general points about advertising creativity. First, the creative process is typically driven by the overall strategy worked out collaboratively by the client and the agency. Second, the specific creative product frequently emerges in an unpredictable way rather than through the application of some specific formula. Third, the creative product in successful, long running campaigns itself often evolves over time in order to sharpen its effectiveness in communicating. Fourth, the creative process involves a lot of hard work from its beginnings in strategy to the finished advertisements that potential consumers see. inline graphic inline graphic

Good News

Pleased with the success of its advertising and the growth of the company, GEICO continued its relationship with The Martin Agency and called on them to expand the advertising. Through negotiations between the agency and the client, the new advertising was again to focus on saving money on insurance with GEICO. inline graphic inline graphic

Bob Meagher relates the story of the origins of the creative idea that became the basis of the Good News campaign:

In the course of concepting, Cody14 told me a very funny joke. It was kind of a new twist on the good news joke. I thought it was one of the funniest jokes I’d ever heard. What was so great about it was that the good news had nothing to do with the person he was telling it to. It had to do with the person giving the news. I said, “Gosh, well what if we just used that joke and changed the good news to be, ‘I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to GEICO?’”15 inline graphic inline graphic

This Spoof Turns Out to Be a GEICO Commercial (2005) []
Fig. 16.

This Spoof Turns Out to Be a GEICO Commercial (2005) [Source]

This campaign posed a specific challenge for the creative team—each new execution needed to be fresh and surprising. This meant finding ways to involve people in the commercials in such a way that they did not see the joke coming. inline graphic inline graphic

Another Unexpected Beginning for a GEICO Spot (2005) []
Fig. 17.

Another Unexpected Beginning for a GEICO Spot (2005) [Source]

Perhaps one of the most memorable and initially surprising in this series of commercials involves a soap opera-like situation where a man tells his crying girlfriend about his “good news.” inline graphic inline graphic

This Soap Opera Parody Has a Surprise Ending (2004) []
Fig. 18.

This Soap Opera Parody Has a Surprise Ending (2004) [Source]


Testimonials from satisfied customers are an old standby technique of advertising. They work for print, radio, and TV and can even be used in the newer outlets like Internet and viral advertising. The idea for testimonials as a part of GEICO’s advertising package came from Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, GEICO’s parent company. According to Bassett, Buffett pointed out to the company that they receive a lot of testimonials and should consider using them in the campaign. Enter The Martin Agency and its way of tweaking an idea until it comes up with a genuinely original approach. inline graphic inline graphic

The approach in this set of commercials is to take a real person who is not an actor and have a celebrity jazz up their presentation. The trade journal Adweek praised the GEICO commercials and awarded them runner-up status in 2006 for Best Commercial of the Year.

The success of “Testimonial” lies in its canny, and extraordinarily campy, use of nearly forgotten celebrities including Charo, Burt Bacharach and Little Richard, giving dramatic interpretations of people’s experiences with the insurance provider. Among our favorites: Bacharach, dressed in a tuxedo, noodling on a piano and fashioning lyrics from a woman’s tale of being rear-ended by a GEICO customer, and Little Richard in true crazy-eyed falsetto form singing, “Mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce! Whooo!” when a woman relates how she hit a deer on Thanksgiving.16 inline graphic inline graphic

Burt Bacharach as Celebrity Spokesperson for GEICO (2006) []
Fig. 19.

Burt Bacharach as Celebrity Spokesperson for GEICO (2006) [Source]

Little Richard as Celebrity Spokesperson for GEICO (2006) []
Fig. 20.

Little Richard as Celebrity Spokesperson for GEICO (2006) [Source]

The Cavemen

In 2004, the strategy shifted to another aspect of GEICO’s approach to car insurance—the simplicity and ease of use of Unlike many other car insurance companies, who use agents to sell insurance to consumers, GEICO primarily approaches potential customers through the telephone or Internet. At that point in time, the company wanted to play up the ease of getting a rate quote online. Hence, the creative brief was simply stated as: is easy to use. With this, the creative department at The Martin Agency put on their thinking caps and began discussing possible ways to communicate this message. Steve Bassett recalls the birth of the idea to use cavemen:

When Joe Lawson and I started working on the strategy, he said, “You know, who can we say is dumb—so easy a blank could do it? So easy a baby could do it? So easy a monkey could do it? So easy a child could do it?” We always make a joke with GEICO that about the only target you can make fun of is you and me and that’s about it. Advertisers are always worried about offending. We’re all worried about offending everybody in a very PC world.

So everyone agreed: “Let’s use cavemen. We won’t get any letters on cavemen.” What I really like about the campaign is that we took that notion and twisted it by saying, “Well, what if cavemen were still around and GEICO didn’t realize it?”—which I think is brilliant! I think that if it had been just cavemen in animal skins like you see in New Yorker cartoons, it would not have been nearly as interesting because we’ve seen that joke a thousand times. But to make a statement like, “So easy a caveman could do it,” and then see that modern-day cavemen are still around and that they are offended by that, and to see how that plays out—to me, that’s just brilliant. And also the strategy is so tied to the message in this particular case that it’s hard to pull out: “GEICO.comso easy a caveman can do it”—That’s basically the message, and it’s hard to pull that apart, you know. So that’s why it’s such a strong campaign. inline graphic inline graphic

The First Commercial Featuring a GEICO Caveman (2004) []
Fig. 21.

The First Commercial Featuring a GEICO Caveman (2004) [Source]

A visit to a GEICO caveman’s apartment presents an alternative way of involving consumers with the brand. Innovative commercials attract free buzz, talk and publicity for the brand.

Newsweek reported that the cavemen will have their own half-hour sitcom in the fall. “As if the poor guys weren’t already in danger of overexposure, along comes ABC, which has ordered up, cringe, a sitcom pilot centering on the awkward lives of the out-of-time characters, who will live in Atlanta and date beautiful women.”17 The actual success of a sitcom featuring the cavemen would be an enormous advertising coup for GEICO. It is no longer necessary to insert the name GEICO with an image of one of these cavemen. That link has already been made in the minds of viewers. This movement from TV commercial into TV program is reflective of the continual search for new media and new ways of communicating commercial messages to potential consumers. inline graphic inline graphic

The New York Times offered a more analytic commentary on the news of an upcoming cavemen sitcom, asking what it really means when an ad campaign spawns potential sitcom characters. The conclusion the NYT analysis reached makes a strong case for the study of advertising and society:

The recent news that ABC was willing to entertain the possibility of a sitcom starring the GEICO cavemen seemed a sort of watershed. Here were characters dreamed up as part of an advertising campaign potentially crossing over into a venerable form of mainstream, pop-culture entertainment. While that sounds momentous, it misses a larger point. As characters of a successful advertising campaign, the cavemen are already a part of mainstream pop culture. More so, in fact, than characters in most current sitcoms… In fact, what the caveman ads really reveal is just how potent a form advertising can be—not just as a selling tool but also as a cultural communication (or as a “text,” if you like).18 inline graphic inline graphic

The Caveman Saga Continues in this Commercial (2004) []
Fig. 22.

The Caveman Saga Continues in this Commercial (2004) [Source]

This Commercial Is Reminiscent of The Graduate (2006) []
Fig. 23.

This Commercial Is Reminiscent of The Graduate (2006) [Source]

This Commercial Is Reminiscent of The Sopranos (2006) []
Fig. 24.

This Commercial Is Reminiscent of The Sopranos (2006) [Source]

Fig. 25. Ad Age Determined that the GEICO Campaign Strategy Was Successful []
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Fig. 25.

Ad Age Determined that the GEICO Campaign Strategy Was Successful [Source]

6. Some Additional Insights into the Creative Process

Several articles published in Advertising & Society Review contain additional behind-the-scenes analyses of the creative process in advertising. Here is a list of some articles where creativity is discussed from the point of view of those who make ads:

7. Conclusion

The successes of the Creative Revolution in the 1960s and the contemporary GEICO campaign underscore the importance of innovation in advertising communications. The creative process itself follows no prescribed formula, but rather its genius lies in the ability of teams of writers, art directors, planners, and managers to find simple and elegant means to express their clients’ messages in ways that will be noticed and remembered by potential consumers. inline graphic inline graphic

William M. O’Barr

William M. O’Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford Universities. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course, Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives, is one of Duke’s most popular undergraduate courses. His many seminar courses include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.

He is author or co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in East Africa, Japan, and the United States. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O’Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.

In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of Advertising and Society — An Online Curriculum which will consist of 20 units published as supplements to A&SR.


1. See the discussion of advertising as the official art of capitalist society in Unit 1, “What is Advertising?” Advertising & Society Review 6, no. 3 (2005).

2. C. G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Quoted in Penelope Murray, Genius: The History of an Idea (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 9.

3. Advertising Educational Foundation, “DiSesa, Disensational!” Advertising Educational Foundation, (accessed June 8, 2007).

4. William O’Barr, “The Advertising Profession in the Public’s Eye,” Advertising & Society Review 7, no. 1 (2006), 7.1unit05.html (accessed June 8, 2007).

5. Excerpt from E. Holmes, Life of Mozart Including his Correspondence (Chapman & Hall, 1878), 211–13. Quoted in P.E. Vernon, Creativity (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1970), 55.

6. Bob Levenson and Bill Bernbach, Bill Bernbach’s Book: A History of Advertising that Changed the History of Advertising (New York: Villard/Random House, 1987), 58.

7. Robert Weisberg, Creativity: Understanding Innovation in Problem Solving, Science, Invention and the Arts (Hoboken: Wiley, 2006), 90.

8. There were instead art departments, copy departments, and so on. The departments’ work was pulled together at a late stage in the production of ads.

9. Quoted in Larry Dobrow, When Advertising Tried Harder (New York: Friendly Press, 1984), 24.

10. Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

11. Jeff Beer, “Good News; The Martin Agency Just Created a Pop Cultural Icon (and Maybe Even a TV Show),” Creativity, April 2007, 48.

12. Ken Spera of The Martin Agency.

13. Interview with Steve Bassett, May 18, 2007.

14. Cody Spinadel, Meagher’s partner.

15. Personal communication from the Martin Agency.

16. Kamau High, “Adweek’s Best Spots of the Year - 2006” Adweek February 5, 2007, 23.

17. Ramin Setoodeh, “Caveman Chic,” Newsweek, April 9, 2007, 50.

18. Rob Walker, “Pop-Culture Evolution,” New York Times Magazine, April 15, 2007, 20.

Media Credits

Fig. 1. Courtesy From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America, Library of Congress

Fig. 5. Life, May, 1950.

Fig. 6. Yasutoshi Ikuta, American Memory: The World of Advertising Art, Dream of the Fifties, (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1988) p. 28.

Fig. 7. Yasutoshi Ikuta, American Memory: The World of Advertising Art, Dream of the Fifties, (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1988) p. 21.

Fig. 8. New Yorker, February 20, 1960, 131.

Fig. 9. New Yorker, April 9, 1960, 73.

Fig. 10. New Yorker, April 22, 1961, 53.

Fig. 11. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 12. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 13. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 14. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 15. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

16. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 17. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 18. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 19. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 20. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 21. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 22. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 23. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 24. Courtesy The Martin Agency.

Fig. 25. Jim Lovel, “Loving the Lizard” Adweek, October 24, 2005.