How Geico Became the One Advertiser It’s OK to Love

The insurer and The Martin Agency reflect on 25 years and their best ads

'Hump Day' was voted No. 1 in Geico's recent promotion asking viewers to pick their favorite from eight of its classic ads. Geico
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What makes a Geico ad a Geico ad?

The insurance brand has run an endless parade of humorous advertising over its 25-year relationship with The Martin Agency, and, creatively, the campaigns have been all over the map. Even more strangely, these disparate campaigns have often run in market at the same time, breaking a core commandment of marketing: Thou shalt not confuse thy customer.

But the counterintuitive thread that binds them all has also been the brand’s secret to not overstaying its welcome with the ad-watching public. The secret: Be funny, but not too funny.

“It’s a smart humor—a chuckle, not a knee slapper,” Joe Pusateri, vp of marketing for Geico, tells Adweek. “We think knee-slappers wear out and get kind of irritating.”

With this guiding principle, Geico has managed to become the advertising equivalent of the friend everyone likes having around. Funny, but not obnoxiously so. The brand’s dry wit comes through in even the most over-the-top campaigns, with its jokes never seeming low-brow nor New-Yorker-cartoon elitist.

To mark the 25 years since it began its creative relationship with the Richmond, Virginia, based Martin Agency, Geico has been re-airing a collection of some of its greatest advertising hits recently, while also encouraging fans to vote for their favorites.

The voting ended this week, and the fan favorite proved to be “Hump Day,” the 2013 spot that became an immediate office catchphrase for any given Wednesday.

The Geico and Martin teams had long discussed the idea of revisiting their classic ads, many of which hold up remarkably well—including “Collect Call,” a circa-2000 spot from the era of payphones:

The 25th anniversary of the client-agency relationship provided a good excuse to wrangle together a “best of” collection, but to avoid the whole thing seeming too self-indulgent, Geico made sure to include both the voting and prize aspects.

The idea of the winner appearing in a future ad stemmed from a wish frequently heard among Geico staffers.

“People here within the Geico walls always say, ‘I wish I could be in a Geico ad,'” Pusateri says. 

Would most people get excited about the possibility of appearing in an ad? Probably not. But a Geico ad? That’s something different.

The reason why Geico ads have remained in a class of their own dates back to the earliest days of its ads, when the brand was an unknown, the category was a complete bore and the rules of truly modern advertising had yet to be written.

From upstart to icon

In the mid 1990s, there was no Flo. There was no Mayhem. There was no JK. Simmons doing questionable research. Insurance was serious business with no time for nonsense.

“Geico was a challenger brand back in 1994,” says Steve Bassett, Martin Agency’s group creative director overseeing the Geico account. “Car insurance was a very low-interest category. Not only do people not think about it, they don’t want to think about it.”

Geico was also asking consumers to think of insurance in a completely new way. Instead of selling you on an agent who’d become your long-term insurance adviser, Geico was asking you to buy insurance as a commoditized product—meaning price and convenience were key.

In its research on the account, Martin Agency found the perfect way to drive home this differentiator.

“We did some research and found that in 15 minutes, you could save 15 percent or more,” Bassett says.

Yes, it would become one of advertising’s great taglines, but it also set the stage for a new way of pitching insurance.

“The tagline Gieco and Martin Agency built together was a very left-brain approach to insurance,” Bassett says, “when most other insurance brands were using right-brain, emotional approaches.”

The client-agency team felt that most insurers were tacitly trying to scare their potential customers with messages of the worst-case scenarios that necessitate insurance. Instead, Geico would make them laugh. And instead of focusing on when you’ll need insurance, Geico simply treated it as a monthly bill we all know we need to pay—so why not save a few bucks?

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."