Humor works. GEICO quickly climbed the hierarchy of car insurance providers once its Caveman was introduced in 2004. Today it's the fastest-growing company in the sector, behind only State Farm. For many, the decision to compare insurance companies starts with a chuckle.
Here's a look at the industry's greatest hits since then, plus a couple of misses.
The Caveman: After his debut in 2004, Caveman turned GEICO into a household name and a surging contender in the auto insurance market. He also inspired a flock of other ad icons, from Progressive's "Flo" to Allstate's "Mayhem." The Caveman was so popular that he and his thick-headed brethren were granted their own ABC sitcom in late 2007. The series was a flop, canceled after only five weeks. So, what's his appeal, at least as an ad phenomenon? He may not be much on the evolutionary ladder, but he sure thinks he is. Deluded self-importance, and the easily offended sensibility of an advanced species, is just funny in a Neanderthal.
The pitch: If this bonehead can get a good deal, then yes, it must be easy.
Flo: Progressive's main spokes-creation is "Flo," an odd mother hen known for her retro 'do and bemused ways. Flo's reason for living is coverage. She leads you to the right aisle and hands you the perfect Box of Insurance, thrilled that you're thrilled. Flo is agreeably clueless to how really strange she is, and that amuses people. Played by Stephanie Courtney, a veteran actress and member of the Groundlings comedy troupe, Flo has inspired fan clubs and devotional postings on the Web ("I want her! She is a goddess," pants a YouTube admirer --a fairly typical remark). Sure, not everybody indulges in Flo-love, but detractors are in the minority, at least for now.
The pitch: Let Mommy hug you and make it all better.
Mayhem: The word on Allstate's "Mayhem" is simple: Women dig the bad boy. But men dig him, too. That's because he's the edgiest of them all -- a mascot grimly determined to earn his name. Allstate, of course, still relies heavily on soothing mainstream spokesman Dennis Haysbert (the president on Fox's "24"), but Mayhem seems to gain influence every day. He's a surreal chameleon: When actor Dean Winters tell you he is a tree branch, just waiting, waiting, waiting for the chance to do you harm, you believe him. Winters may be remembered for, yes, mostly darker roles in "Oz," "Rescue Me" and "30 Rock."
The pitch: Run! Hide! Buy insurance!
Rhetorical Question Guy: This smooth icon is a combination of '40s film noir (think John Garfield or Bogart emerging from a shadowy alley) and Rod Serling. His clipped speech is tight with impatience that anyone might not believe switching to GEICO could save 15 percent or more on car insurance. "Did the little piggy cry wee wee wee all the way home?" he sneers. "Did the Waltons take too long to say goodnight?" The ad campaign, created by the Martin Agency, was launched in 2009 with actor Mike McGlone ("The Brothers McMullen" and "She's the One"). The pitch? So obvious we're not going to point it out to you... stupid.
The Messenger: "The Messenger" is something of a sidekick to "Flo." They don't appear in commercials together, but he's often seen in a car, a Flo bobblehead bouncing on the dashboard. He usually pats it affectionately. Like Flo, The Messenger seems like a throwback. Portrayed by actor John Jenkinson, he's scruffy and wears clothes that are vintage `70s. The Messenger usually appears somewhere mundane - a mattress store, a clothing shop -- and starts in about Progressive's fantastic car insurance to anyone willing to listen. In a diner, a startled waitress asks, "Who are you?" The Messenger slowly replies, "Just a man who loves savings -- and pie."
The pitch? Progressive - endorsed by a complete stranger!
World's Greatest Spokesperson in the World: The excitable kid in high school who talked teachers into field trips is now all grown up, still yakking away, still shameless in his pursuit of the sale. Nationwide lets us know it's in on the joke. Yes, our boy -- the actor's name is Bob Wiltfong -- is over the top, ridiculously cheesy, willing to stand on his head to make us believe.
The pitch? He can play the Nationwide theme with his armpit! Buy insurance!
The Gecko: He's cute. He's green. He's lovable. He's from Great Britain, maybe, or is that Australia? Anyway, he's the Gecko, perhaps GEICO's best-known advertising mascot. Where the insurer's Caveman brought surly indignation to his ads, the Gecko is all about the sweetness and light (and auto insurance quotes). The small spokes-lizard is as intimidating as a stuffed toy, guileless and incapable of snark or untruths. And that's why people and, GEICO hopes, insurance buyers like him.
The pitch? The Gecko is a very trustworthy reptile, and you should buy insurance from him.
Erin Esurance: Erin Esurance was a provocative, pink-haired superspy masquerading as an auto insurance agent. Or was it the other way around? Erin, dressed in a skin-tight bodysuit, was so popular that Web fanboys drooled over her exploits. Hundreds of artists around the globe took liberties with her form, creating erotic images of Erin that veered from the R-rated all the way into kinky XXX. Esurance pulled the plug in 2010, and some say it was because the company didn't like all of Erin's randy incarnations. The company, however, says the campaign had run its course.
The pitch: Even guys who live in basements need car insurance.