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The GEICO Gecko Does Not Like Being Called A Cartoon

Sometimes a TV commercial is just a TV commercial. But not this time. This new spot for auto insurance company GEICO is noteworthy for its meta-humor about the animation art form with the ironic observation of a CG cartoon character who is offended by its less subtle 2D version.

The commercial works particularly well because it exploits the general public’s understanding (or lack thereof) of the animation process. Just like the GEICO Gecko himself, the majority of the general public probably would consider the computer-generated version of the character to be a wholly different beast than the hand-drawn version. In fact, this gag wouldn’t have even worked when the Gecko debuted thirteen years ago because the CG production standards of that time gave it the appearance of a more traditional cartoon character. It is only with technological improvements over time that the Gecko’s appearance has edged toward photorealism, a trait that is exploited in this current spot’s extreme close-ups that emphasize the character’s naturalism.

At the end of the day, both versions of these characters are animated, but there is perhaps some truth to the Gecko’s observation that one is a cartoon and the other is not. It raises some fascinating questions of what makes a cartoon character a ‘cartoon’? Is it its visual appearance, its behavior and personality, its production techniques? The question has become increasingly complex as traditional cartoon characters like Alvin and the Chipmunks have been reimagined as photorealistic animated characters that bear scant resemblance to their former cartoon selves. Can a cartoon cross over to being an animated character or does it always retain its original cartoon identity? I cannot pretend to have the answers, but the questions are intriguing.

(Thanks, Joel Calhoun)

  • Floyd Norman

    I think the Gecko’s comment is profound. The cartoon business as we once knew it, no longer exists. Hell, even the cartoon characters know it.

  • I’d say that the degree to which
    something can be considered a cartoon, is based more on the Character Design
    and the Animation than whether or not it is 2D or 3D. Works like Gerald
    McBoingBoing and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs are both obviously cartoons,
    while works like Akira and Beowulf are certainly not. Cartooning is a form of
    exaggeration that is used, or misused, to highlight things that the creator
    wants to say, whether it is done consciously or not. This is where the gag
    comes from in this Geico ad; he is a cartoon Gecko that is “dressed up” in
    photorealistic 3D to downplay his caricatured quality, so naturally he would
    look down upon a version of himself that is so blatantly cartoony.

  • mikeluz

    I think “Cartoon” as a term refers to a hard outlined drawing. It pre-dates animation and I think it was used to describe drawings done as planning for fresco paintings. In that very literal sense, the Gecko is right, he’s not a cartoon (though he is animated)

    • Funkybat

      Exactly. The Gecko is an animated character. This in and of itself is no longer synonymous with “cartoon character.” I think even most technologically unsavvy people know that on some level, CG characters are not “drawn” the same way Mickey Mouse or Popeye were, though there are probably misperceptions surrounding how the 3D characters themselves are formed by the artists. Most people know that a “hand drawn cartoon” is a different creature than something like the Gecko, Dobby or Gollum.

  • Meredith

    Modern use (distinguished from the historical use as mentioned by mikeluz) of the word “cartoon” implies caricature or exaggeration, usually (but not always) for humorous purposes. As in, “this drawing is too cartoony for our market.”

    • SarahJesness

      Oy, yeah. I’m always reluctant to refer to more dramatic animated shows and movies as “cartoons” because I associate cartoons with exaggerated features and comedy.

      • Chris Sobieniak

        In that regard, the so-called “Anime” would be placed in the dramatic category as well despite it also being a “cartoon” as well.

  • Keen Bean

    Pretty sure they are just ironically insulting the animation business

    • mikeluz

      Yes to that. I would love to see the brief the poor animators who made the “bad cartoon gecko to be mocked” were given.

    • Ant G

      That bad part of animation business as opposed to the industry as a whole. The Gecko is still an animation, 2D or 3D, he’s just not a badly design one like what was pitched to him.

  • Joshua

    Isn’t this a joke that has been used in previous GEICO commercials?

    For example:

    (Computer Animated Coffee)
    Flat Tire: Behind the Scenes, acts as though he’s fa filmed character
    “Blooper Reel”-esque commercial

    The gag seems to be more along the lines of “Ha! He’s a cartoon character who doesn’t think of himself as a cartoon character”, rather than making any real distinction. It’d be similar to a Muppet using puppetry and being mocked for it or for not seeing things as “a puppet using a puppet”. The joke is that the AUDIENCE is aware the two things are the same, but the characters aren’t, it’s a comedic irony.

    • Keen Bean

      Idk if the average American audience is aware that those two things seethe same?

    • Funkybat

      I don’t really see it that way at all. Even with the “CG coffee cup” one, it seems more like the Gecko sees himself and others treat him as “normal.” In the second and third as especially, it feels more like an “inside showbiz” type gag more than “this cartoon believes he is real.”

      I’ve always enjoyed the Gecko ads, but I never really thought of him as a “cartoon.”

    • Larisa

      By the way, I saw a picture of the Gecko with a puppet gecko in his hands in our GEICO office.

  • Kyle_Maloney

    While my definition of the word is a bit different, I think most think of cartoon as a silly kiddy animation.

    • mikeluz

      Sounds like the struck the right chord with you then on this spot… You’re their target audience I guess :)

      • canimal

        He said that wasn’t exactly his definition of the word, so not really.

  • Roberto Severino

    A sign of the times. When I think of cartoons, I mainly think of exaggerated comedies that happen to be animated that are also a subgenre within animation. Animation happens to be a broader genre and etc. Everyone else here has made excellent points, especially Mr. Floyd Norman.

  • GW

    Personally, I call most of the current computer animated characters ‘flesh dolls’ as they use semi-naturalistically textured flesh and hair with less than realistic proportions. I’d say that a character can transition from being a cartoon character to a non-cartoon character but it works better with a character like Donald Duck than Mickey Mouse whose every important physical trait is extremely removed from reality. But a realistic looking character can be exaggerated just like a fictional one. Just because something looks real on the superficial level doesn’t mean you can’t do tricks like characters changing to sinister looking eyeballs when they get angry or have a coffee cup that enlarges momentarily right before somebody smashes it on a table. There’s some things you have to avoid like coloring skin the wrong way which you don’t have to worry about in less real looking works but there’s still plenty you can do.

    I don’t have a perfect answer to what a cartoon character is because many characters could swing either way. They usually have some combination of exaggerated relative proportions, contour lines and/or solid color fills, unrealistic movement with a silly or physics defying bearing, and a general exaggerative setting. It’s tough to say because it can mean anything from a political caricature to UPA’s flatter cartoon styles.

    I’m just a fan though, so I can’t describe what a cartoon is with the depth of knowledge of a historian or cartoonist.

  • jhalpernkitcat

    I’d love to watch the 3D Gecko argue with the 2D one.

  • Paul N

    Not the first time Geico has referenced animation technique in a commercial. This one’s from a year or so ago:

  • Nicholas Walstrom

    The “Is it a cartoon?” question isn’t really a philosophical one; it’s a question of semantics. It falls under the same category as questions like “What is anime?” Often terms don’t have rigid definitions but are still widely used because they’re useful in certain circumstances and such is the case here.

  • bob

    I think people are over-thinking this.

    The discussions taking place are great, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t some deep “philosophic” statement coming from geico in regards to animation. It’s supposed to be ironic.

  • Keen Bean

    It’s not that it’s mocking that specific cartoon being bad. It’s mocking all cartoons and using that bad cartoon as a representation for their perception of what is “cartoony” in the world. I’m upset about the negative appeal they’re applying to cartoons.

    • I can see what you’re saying. I really does suck that cartooning gets used as the butt of the joke here. Many examples of cartooning nowadays are presented in a negative light, but there’s always hope. For example the highly stylized Mickey toons that have come out recently :)

      • Keen Bean

        Those shows give me hope for a better future and a better america.

  • Jen Hurler

    See, the Gecko is equally annoyed that ‘cartoon’ is synonymous for child’s play, a genre, rather than a medium or even just a stylistic choice. It’s interesting that there are different levels of “cartoony-ness” that differ from levels of abstraction. Ren and Stimpy is a very abstract, ‘cartoony’ cartoon, yet it is anything but a children’s show.

  • Sam

    I think your pulling more out of this then there is, its just a commercial with a punchline.

  • bob

    The discussions are worthy ones, and I think in the industry’s current state of animation these esoteric “english major” discussions need to and will take place. It’s just my opinion that people are projecting their built up animation angst in response to this commercial.

  • Funkybat

    I liked this spot, and not just for the meta-humor. The Gecko is usually shown expressing either a genial or perhaps slightly befuddled attitude, depending on the storyline of a given ad. I think this is the first time I’ve seen him express emotions such as disdain or annoyance. Very nice subtle facial animation! I was a bit annoyed that the 2D cartoon was (purposefully) not very well drawn or animated, but this may have been done to reinforce just why the Gecko might be annoyed by it. Not only was he turned into a goofy cartoon, it’s not even a very good one!

  • Katie

    Totally excellent. The eye roll…..

  • TishTash

    The Uncanny Valley has yet to be fully traversed, although we’re headbutting it pretty consistently.