Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Neanderthal Car insurance Salesmen

I thought I'd talk about character in commercials one more time here. Commercials are, after all, short films. And short forms force you to think quick -- to come up with solutions that immediately engage your audience. Screenwriters struggle to establish characters in ten pages. No such luxury here. It's got to work immediately. And it has to work up against multiple other narratives.

I talked in my last post about how a typical character is structured around an internal conflict. They have a flaw (also known as a misbehavior) that keeps them from easily resolving the plot problem. They've got a desire that pushes them through the plot problem. On this basic level, this much is true of a Tide commercial and the Godfather both. I did my best to cram the Nasonex Bee into that structure. Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves that this internal/external conflict is more of a thought process for a writer than a finished product. You can't really just paint by numbers here. You have to dig down and think.

And so: what's up with the Geico Cavemen? This commercial is interesting to me because the company it's for is actually the opponent in the ad. On the face of it, this seems like a crappy idea. Why associate yourself with the image of a callous, unthinking corporation oppressing a sympathetic underdog? There's got to be an easier and less risky way to sell car insurance.

Think back to the first commercial. Two cavemen advocates sit in a fancy L.A. restaurant, and some cheesy guy in a bad suit says, "Seriously, we're sorry. We didn't even realize you guys still exist." Then there's this great line, where the caveman looks up and orders the roast duck with the mango salsa. And the second caveman is too disgusted to eat.

Something very interesting is going on here. First, yes -- the company is projecting itself as this cheesy, somewhat shifty, and completely outgunned average business shmo. The audience is smart enough to know this is an ad for Geico. The writer knows this. He knows he wants to get the audience on Geico's side. What's he say? "Hey, you can laugh at us. And we know that this stuff is real." Most adult Americans can relate to feeling disrespected by an auto insurance company. The idea of an insurance company, on the other hand, is, uh, unfamiliar.

Now look at the whole insensitive comment issue. About twice a month America works itself into a froth over some nappy-headed comment made by a semi-lucid celebrity. While some Americans are truly outraged, others are amused. Some think it's a waste of time and hot air. Others hate that anyone should be fired for expressing a belief. We're all over the page on this one. Why would a writer go near that in a car insurance commercial?

Well, because it's conflict. And it's one we can identify. And conflict lets the audience engage the story.

The writer won't go in there willy-nilly. He thinks of a strategy for his character. He obviously can't make the character resemble any minority group. This would be death. So he knows that the character has to be safely distanced. Hence: cavemen. Of course the cavemen need a conflict too. What conflict would really drive the insensitivity issue? They're articulate cavemen.

What's the end result? We can identify the situation: a blow up over insensitivity. And we can take either side.

The writers and producers thought through all this stuff. They didn't opt for a female caveman. They didn't choose a Latino actor, or an African-American. The guy's voice is clearly that of some nerdy white guy. Now take a look at his make up. What's that got to do with writing? The writer comes up with the original character conceit.

The writer is looking for the safest way to frame his character. The safest place is not only as far away from anything that could be read as race. It's also a well-defined, very particular place. And so the cavemen look straight out of 'Land of the Lost'. They are a type. I'd imagine this decision was based on the target market, which probably has positive associations around those cavepeople from their childhood.

The character was successful enough to spawn a whole series of commercials. And before you know it, there's a whole world view that's been worked out very carefully. There's the caveman seeing his shrink. She's a very similar type to the Geico representative in the restaurant. Simplistic thinking. lack of understanding. No real way of dealing with a caveman. We're still in L.A. (look out the window). And again the caveman wins, and we're happy (and reminded of Geico). There's the caveman who sees the offending poster in an airport. It repeats the character conceit, which allows the writers (and Geico) to build a memorable commercial. And that ain't easy.

I wonder if the next step might be to bring their ad campaigns into conflict. Maybe the Geico gecko struggles to placate an angry caveman? Or they swamp him at a protest, and we end somehow with "I just saved hundreds on my car insurance."

Maybe not. There's a problem here. The caveman has to score a small but meaningful victory here. But the gecko does too. Two strong character conceits would probably make the whole commercial feel like Geico had finally jumped the shark. There's only one thing that's certain: brainstorming through these problems would almost inevitably produce a stronger ad than not considering them.

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