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Neanderthals walk among us. GEICO, the Maryland-based insurance company known as much for its commercials as for its coverage, has developed for its new ads two cavemen characters, who the company hopes will join its old flack, the gecko, among the most effective brand-associative symbols in advertising. In the shrewdly self-referential spots, the unnamed cavemen try to adapt to the modern world, a rude abrasive place in which they find themselves the object of jokes, ridicule, bias—and advertisements. It’s an ad campaign about an ad campaign, and it’s very much caught on. “The response to the cavemen has exceeded all of our expectations,” says Joe Lawson, copywriter at the Martin Agency, which created the ads. Lawson told Adweek  his firm was “thrilled to share our version of what it’s like to be a caveman in the modern world.”


In one of the earliest ads in the series, a GEICO pitchman, by delivering the company slogan (“So easy, even a caveman could do it”) runs afoul of the sensibilities of two cavemen in his camera crew. He meekly apologizes to the pair later at an upscale restaurant. “Honestly, we didn’t know any of you guys were still around,” the GEICO apologist says. Then, in an ad that first aired in October, one of the two cavemen, a smartly dressed, articulate special pleader for the Neanderthal community, is interviewed on a TV talk show. The caveman has issues with the high-handed tone of the interviewer; the interviewer responds: “Tone aside, historically, you guys have struggled to adapt.”


“Right,” the caveman sarcastically replies, “walking upright, discovering fire, inventing the wheel, laying the foundation for all mankind. Good point. Sorry we couldn’t get that to you sooner.” Another guest on the program is asked to respond. “Sounds like someone woke up on the wrong side of the rock,’’ she says—to the caveman’s obvious distress.


Either by coincidence or (more likely) by design, the GEICO caveman campaign takes some of its fish-out-of-water cues from V.T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop, a comic strip created in 1933 and still syndicated today, about a caveman who travels in a time machine to the 21st century. But symbolically speaking, GEICO’s cavemen join the long history of aggrieved American social classes. Irish, Chinese and Italian immigrants alike were reviled, ostracized and victimized when they came to America, and the tragic history of African Americans run through the fabric of the nation from the beginning. Today, Latinos face the same obstacles to assimilation and acceptance. So why mock this universally American struggle in an ad?


To J. Fred MacDonald, author of Blacks on White TV  and One Nation Under Television and a history professor at Northeastern Illinois University, the caveman are “a minority you can attack with impunity. We’ve seen with Borat what happens when you go after a real country like Kazakhstan,” he says, referring to the real-life protests and lawsuits emerging in the wake of the film. “But cavemen? No one lobbies for Neanderthals. You’ve got a lot of Neanderthals in government, but that’s another story.”


In MacDonald’s view, the need to mock those who are different rests deep in our psyche. “It’s the human condition—differences provoke an uneasiness that is not funny but can be exploited with humor.” Theoretically, the GEICO ads can dispel some of that. “The tension, the differences between us can be pricked with humor, and that’s a positive thing. The cavemen continue the genre of ridiculing the different. It’s in the tradition of humor that tweaks our differences. Whether you get it consciously or subconsciously, it’s there. Usually those differences are ethnic, linguistic or racial, but it’s human, it’s cross-cultural.”


Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, agrees there’s more going on in the GEICO ads than first meets the eye. He sees the GEICO ads as another link in the chain of American humor, from minstrel shows that lampooned blacks to borscht-belt comedy that more recently made Jewish Americans a genial laughingstock. While making no parallels between cavemen and Eastern Europeans, Thompson says society has “made more fun of eastern Europeans—the kind of vague eastern European character—than any other ethnic group,” citing Latka Gravas, Andy Kaufman’s character from Taxi, and the Belky character from Perfect Strangers as examples. They’re safe targets, ready for ridicule without fear of repercussions because their countries don’t seem to exist.


The GEICO ads are an extension of this. “It’s very safe territory,” he said. “These cavemen are quite articulate. They’re really urbane, but with this raging sense of entitlement. They come off as funny; we feel we have permission to laugh about it because it’s aimed at people who never existed—cavemen never spoke in English and ordered in restaurants. But the ads could be perceived as offensive because they’re making fun of people who are sensitive about stereotypes.”  For Thompson, the ads are “the tip of an iceberg of a much larger trend— a backlash against political correctness.” Thompson says that while the ads mock a nonexistent group, their real target is those people who take offense at stereotyping, the politically correct who are often the derisive focus of South Park, a show that pushes the power of free speech in the face of a hypersensitive public. “The show is constantly doing parodies of our sensitivity,” Thompson says, “Its treatment of Jews, people in wheelchairs and gay people systematically shocks us and says things that are outrageous.”


And that seems to be the gist of GEICO’s campaign: Besides their branding value, the GEICO ads represent shock as its own objective, shock for shock’s sake. Outwardly, the ads have nothing to do with car insurance. Cars aren’t even mentioned or depicted in any way. The ads capitalize on the confrontational style of many recent TV ads. Hummer’s recent campaign, with peeved drivers trading in their wimpy old vehicles on a sudden, hyperaggressive whim, is a blatant nod to our more atavistic tendencies and that American appeal for instant gratification. Volkswagen’s latest ads, featuring startling corner-of-your-eye accidents, all but literally crash into our living rooms to make a point about safety.


The GEICO ad’s mission “is getting you to talk about the ads. It speaks to memorability; you do associate it with GEICO,’’ says Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming at media buyer Carat USA. With the caveman ads and the gecko commercials, Brill says, “you’ve got brand recall in both of those strategies. In the end, remembering the brand and the product is all that matters when people are seeking car insurance.” But what does it say that we find insensitivity more memorable than distasteful?


Maybe the overarching takeaway of the GEICO caveman ads is the way their appeal shows how insensitive we’ve apparently become to the most sensitive among us. Maybe our fractious, divided, red-and-blue-dominant nation—exhausted by the arguments and complaints of various minorities – has less tolerance for tolerance than it once had. GEICO’s cavemen reframe the national debate on political correctness in an advertising campaign that’s as much a sign of the times as the cars we drive: Can we all just get along? Sure we can—as long as you look like me.

Michael E. Ross writes frequently on the arts, race matters, politics and American culture. He has worked as a reporter, critic and editor at various news organizations, including The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and msnbc.com. He blogs on politics and media at Short Sharp Shock. American Bandwidth, a book of essays and blog posts spanning the 2004 presidential election and the dawn of the Obama administration, was published by Authorhouse in October 2009.


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