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.