It’s an Ad. But Is It Art?

5 minute read
James Poniewozik

Clarification Appended, June 22, 2007

As sometimes happens on TV, the Geico “Cavemen” ad campaign was a good idea born of a lame one. The concept, says Joe Lawson, one of the writers who conceived it, was that signing up with the insurer online was so easy “even a caveman” could do it. “It was just a dumb way of saying that our website is really easy,” Lawson says. So he and his collaborators added a twist: a group of modern-day cavemen protesting the stereotyping of the ad-within-an-ad while the agency tries to make amends.

The campaign worked–so well that ABC picked it up as a sitcom for the fall. And the knee-jerk critical snarking began. Of course the show would be bad–it came from a commercial! What’s next? scoffed the Philadelphia Daily News. A buddy sitcom for the Mac and PC guys?

Prejudice begets prejudice. TV has always been looked down on as a poor cousin to the movies, so it needs to look down on something–even if that something is the advertising that allows much of TV to exist. But my skepticism about Cavemen is just the opposite: that the commercials may be too good–too elegant, dry and subtle–to be made into a sitcom.

The beauty of the Geico spots is that they play the characters perfectly straight. There are no club-wielding or fire-inventing jokes. The cavemen play tennis, they go to therapists, they order roast duck with mango salsa. As allegorical stand-ins for minorities, they’re more complex than the aggrieved parties usually are in sitcoms. They’re not boisterous Al Sharpton firebrands but peevish, passive-aggressive, neurotic yuppies. They do what good TV characters should: they confound expectations.

Which shouldn’t be a surprise. People in “legitimate” creative fields like to believe that ads can’t be art, but ads often have been as influential as TV–or more so–in pop culture. This is demonstrated by, of all things, a TV series: AMC’s Mad Men, about ad executives in 1960–and possibly the best new show you’ll see this summer.

Created by Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, the drama (debuting July 19) is set just after the creation of the revolutionary “Think Small” Volkswagen ad campaign, a time widely considered to be Madison Avenue’s golden age. “Admen were the rock stars of that era,” Weiner says. “They had creative jobs, they earned a lot of money, they drank a lot. There was this real cowboy image.”

This period was the cusp of the ’50s and ’60s, and advertising was tuning into social changes, giving a voice to what we now popularly think of as irony. The chain-smoking corporate hipsters of Madison Avenue, Weiner says, tapped into a dissonance apparent to a generation that had seen the horrors of World War II followed by a postwar façade of peace and innocence. Ads like “Think Small” and Avis’ “We Try Harder” don’t seem shocking now, but they stood out then because they made virtues of limitations. More broadly, they sold the idea that the surface assumptions of a cocky nation–e.g., that biggest was best–weren’t necessarily correct. Whereas hit TV at the time was simple, credulous and guileless: westerns, Andy Griffith, Danny Thomas.

TV eventually caught up, but ever since, there’s been a dialogue between the “real” shows and the spots that pay the bills. The conversational humor of The Office–which Lawson cites as a model for the cavemen spots–owes a debt to the deadpan ads from FedEx, Monster.com and so on that target the same upscale demographic. The crossover hasn’t always worked: Baby Bob, a talking-baby sitcom based on an ad, was insipid. But Max Headroom, a black-humored sci-fi series based on a Coca-Cola campaign itself based on a British TV show, was brilliantly subversive, set in a media-saturated dystopia in which it was illegal to turn a TV off.

And Cavemen? The pilot is much more broad than the ads–there are several club-wielding jokes–and it leans heavily on one gag, the caveman as metaphor for real-life minorities. But it’s a funny, hard-hitting gag. A news report about a robbery includes a police sketch of the suspect–a hairy, generic australopithecine; the three cavemen buddies argue the merits of using the slur “Cro-magger.” (“It’s O.K. when we say it.”) The show has potential, but the characters actually seem flatter in the 30-min. pilot than in the 30-sec. spots.

If Cavemen fails, in other words, it will be because TV failed advertising, not vice versa. But don’t write the show off because it came from an ad. That’s so simplistic not even a caveman would do it.

The original version of this article referred to the series Max Headroom as a “sitcom”. It is more accurate to describe it as a “black-humored sci-fi series.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com