Ew. Seriously? Geico is So Gross. (Or, Why this shit really isn’t funny.)

Geico car insurance dropped a new ad in January of this year in which a moderately chubby white guy, as a less costly alternative to expensive diet plans, hires three local teenage girls to follow him around making snarky comments. Normally, yet another in an infinite series of ridiculous stereotype-laden 30 second commercials wouldn’t rate a blog post from me. This one truly disturbed me however, not only because of its content but because of the reaction it induced from a few fellow rad fatties.

In an online, fat-positive community, one person posted this ad in frustration. One or two commented their disdain but the majority (who professed themselves usually bothered by things like this) said only that they were largely unbothered by it and even, in some cases, found it funny.

I’m not posting this to shame them or to make anyone feel bad for finding the humor in this ad. I totally get it. There’s a charm to the ad. It feels familiar, like an old blanket. The guy is amiable. The girls are a pitch-perfect trio of teenage snark. The man never truly gives the impression of being emotionally harmed by their behavior, though he is shown to make different choices based on it. It’s easy to see how the good-natured, family-style humor helps all that naturalized myth to creeps in under the radar.

That said, this ad to me is incredibly problematic for exactly that reason. It’s so effective that it even bypasses the warning mechanisms of some radicalized fatties. I admit, I chuckled. It’s possible to find the humor in it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not harmful. And here’s the subtext of this ad to help explain why:

Main dude’s a moderately chubby white guy, clearly a professional, but made to be a schlubby one as he’s wearing a button-up shirt and tie, but no jacket. This gives the impression straight-away of mediocrity. He sits submissively, with his hands folded in his lap and his expression is alternately eager and dull. He’s the underdog ‘everyman’, likable but visibly flawed, a little bit lonely (he’s never shown with anyone else, save the tormenting triad), intelligent but lacking in common sense and self-control. He’s passive, approval-seeking, malleable and clearly unsatisfied with himself.

The teen girls are not just any teens. They are the “popular girls” and, for the purpose of this ad, that detail is important. This guy could have been a family man, he could have hired his daughter and her friends or the girls from next door. Instead, he is pictured as single and the iconic ‘unattainables’ of male adolescent fantasy are called in to provide a metaphor for his lack of sexual currency and respect from self and others. He is transported by his lack of will-power from his agency and authority as an adult male back into the role of the bullied and rejected youth.

Note the secret eating (in his car, alone, in a parking lot, late at night – the paparazzi-flash of the teen girls’ camera phone capturing his mustard-stained cheek and indicating this as a humiliating moment that risks his social exposure), the seeming ‘childishness’ of his food choices (the strawberry waffles, thick with whipped cream and covered in sprinkles), slovenliness (an uncovered sandwich, bread half-off, pulled from the fridge in an old t-shirt, indicating inactivity.) Each of these stereotypical representations further naturalizes the myth of the fat individual as a byproduct of weak-will, poor food choices, excessive consumption and inactivity. They also reinforce the hierarchy of thin vs. fat wherein it is socially acceptable to critique others bodies and/or eating habits providing they appear to be less healthy than yours.

I know it’s easy to miss this stuff. With so much bullshit coming at us every day in the media, it is exhausting to maintain a critical perspective. Sometimes it’s just too much effort to block these messages and, y’know what? That’s OK. Sometimes you have to just laugh and let it pass. No one can slog through this stuff 24/7.  But I needed to speak to this ad in particular, based on its subtlety. Hope it was helpful!

(Comments for this blog post are now closed – ‘cuz seriously – Some of y’all are just being jerks.)

  1. I haven’t seen this ad (my tv stopped working in September and I haven’t replaced it, and I can’t say I miss the ads!), but I do appreciate your pointing out the offensiveness that we are just so used to. I find MANY, if not most, commercials offensive, when I really watch and think about them. Gender and Fat stereotypes run amok (and race stereotypes as well, though being white I am less attuned to those).

    • Hey, E. Yep. It’s the remembering to stop and think that’s the problem. So exhausting to maintain that kind of critical perspective. I know I can’t keep it up all the time! I think my little hate-radar is attuned to note that shit is messed up, but often that’s as far as it goes. I don’t really engage with how or why. But when I saw others laughing at this ad rather than even perfunctorily acknowledging its harmfulness, my internal media critic went into hyperdrive. ;)

  2. I’m going to preface this by saying I work for GEICO and am fat.

    I thought the ad was funny, but I also never even made a connection that the man was supposed to be overweight. I thought he was intended to be an average American who wants to lose weight (read: everyone who isn’t in on HAES, what have you.) I don’t think he was intended to be more slovenly than any other American male, honestly. I do think it is a little bit of a stretch to say that if he’s not wearing a blazer, he’s schlubby and if he’s wearing an old t shirt, they’re making him out to be a slob.

    I don’t think the last scene is intended to be secret eating (I get hungry and have dinner in my car sometimes. It’s not to hide it from anyone) and if it is, it’s to get away from the girls he hired, which I thought he was regretting at that point.

    Anyway, I kind of just wanted to chime in on this because I consider myself part of the size acceptance movement– it is very dear to me. Also, in my time at GEICO I was actually surprised (and delighted) by how ethical the company is– I know for a fact I do not earn less than my male or thin counterparts, and the promotional structure is based on performance. I actually was thinking about blogging about it because I was relieved and refreshed to figure out I was working for a company that won’t screw me over because I wear a size 30. I can actually say with confidence I don’t believe that GEICO was trying to touch on negative stereotypes to make the ad.

    • Hi Jessica – Thanks for your thoughts! I agree that Geico is a fairly ethical corporation, as corporations go. I do have to maintain that I disagree with your overall argument, however. While my reading of the commercial may be extreme, I find yours to be far too forgiving. The truth of both the commercial’s intent and impact is more likely in the middle between us. I caution, however, that in a battle between blatant stereotype and more subtle stereotype like the above, the subtle stereotype is far more effective a means of perpetuating negative representations. At least with blatant stereotyping, the ridiculousness of it forces the audience to have a confrontation with it. It demands to be acknowledged and that forces the audience members to make a decision either to accept or reject it. More subtle use of stereotyping as seen in the Geico commercial passes largely unnoticed, is simply accepted without forcing recognition, and thus is an ideal tool for naturalizing myths and perpetuating stereotypes. Semiotic analysis reveals the hidden undercurrent in everyday media examples. It is the little details (like the lack of blazer, the old t-shirt, the eating alone in the dark in a car) that tell a story. These directorial choices (made intentionally) add up to a narrative and, in this case, that narrative is jam-packed with fat stereotypes. If, by your reading, the man was hiding from the girls he hired, that still shows passivity. If he was tired of it and so annoyed as to ‘escape’ from them, why didn’t he simply tell them to stop rather than choose to hide away at night and scarf a cheeseburger so desperately that he smeared it all over his face in the process? Each of these choices have meaning. And it’s in the refusal to examine and confront those meanings that we continue to let them circulate.

  3. I guess, for me, it boils down to I didn’t make any connection that the guy was meant to be fat or “overweight.”

    • I suppose I can understand that, Jessica. But, if the guy wasn’t “overweight” at all then the ad wouldn’t work. Sure, he’s not FAT-FAT, but he’s pudgy. He’s got a bit of a double chin and a baby-fat face. Think about a wafer thin dude with cut abs and an angular jaw placed in this commercial. You’d spend half the commercial wondering why he was doing a weight-loss schtick. This guy is believable as someone who would go to this particular extreme in order to lose weight. If he wasn’t believable then the ad would simply fail. They could have done the same bit with the premise of wanting to shift his eating habits to organic and natural foods, or to vegetarianism. Instead, they specifically chose weight loss as the premise of the ad. That wasn’t without reason.

  4. Seriously? Offensive? It’s funny. It’s meant to be funny. Stereotyping is part of the humor in this. It’s really sad so many Americans get their feelings hurt so easily over a commercial. Who cares? It pays for your TV shows and gets a product sold.

  5. Your analysis is good, but I would add more. The girls are the creepy nightmare witches of middle schoolers. Characterizing them as such is a good thing. The people in the Geico “ordinary people” ads are down on their luck, look it, and trying to save money in ridiculous, time consuming ways, so characterizing this one guy as “schlubby” is rather beside the point.

    If the ad catches on with a larger population, it may bring needed attention to the over-sized, unhealthy, and as you said, infantile, food choices made by many Americans. The ad is less about being fat, more about bad choices, which is Geico’s point: quit wasting your money on this nonsense with the girls and save money by buying our insurance.

    • Thanks for your added analysis, Cow Girl. I agree with most points, though I do wonder at the idea of categorizing food choices into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ When I said ‘infantile’ in the blog post above, it was in reference to the style of eating (bright, colorful, sprinkles) – more notable as a metaphor for youth and lack of agency than any judgment of the food choice itself. Other folks have done more and better writing on the inherent problems with moralizing over food choices so I won’t try to cover it comprehensively here, but I’d definitely encourage further reading if the topic is interesting to you. The gist, I gather, is that while there’s no arguing with the idea that self-care is paramount – that looks like different things for different people, and also looks like different things for the *same* people at different points. One day, a big salad might be just the thing. Another, a greasy cheeseburger might be the thing that keeps you from doing something possibly more harmful to your physical or mental health. Food is neither good nor bad, it just is.

  6. I agree with you on your analysis of this ad. I was surprised I hadn’t seen any talk of it on the FA blogs I read until now. I studied semiotics in a class in college and it is precisely the subtlety of the symbols which makes them powerful and dangerous with regard to influencing viewers. I was angry and disgusted when I saw this ad. I am glad I live with a family with a DVR so I can fast forward through commercials.

    • Hey Danna – Exactly. And judging from the mixed reaction to this blog, the subtlety also really diminishes the ability of semiotic analysis to make an impact. Everyone can agree on blatant misrepresentation, but the subtle stuff actually seems to raise the ire of people when you point it out. I get it. It’s hard work to maintain critical thought and it’s annoying to have someone being a kill-joy all the time and pointing out what’s wrong with everything. Problem is, there is stuff wrong with nearly everything and the less we point it out, the less likely it is to ever change.

  7. Does anyone know where I can watch the ad online?

  8. I must say I don’t agree with you at all. This ad was funny because of the stereotyping. It was meant to be humorous and it was. There isn’t really a need to over think humor.

  9. I bet you believe in God, too. The commercial is great. “Ew, seriously? So gross.” I love it. You need to get laid or smoke some of the nice green herb and calm down sister.

    • Oh Em Gee, Anonymous Internet Troll — You’re right! I don’t know why I didn’t see it all along. Clearly if the entire world stopped believing anything was important, got perpetually stoned and had lots and lots of sex, everything would be OK! We’d all magically (except not by magic, ‘cuz we don’t believe in magic!) get equal access to medical care, job discrimination would disappear, there’d be no more street harassment or youth suicide from childhood bullying. Yes! Your insightful and witty comment has made me see the light! You’re a shoe-in for the Nobel Prize! (P.S. http://stacybias.net/2012/02/the-burden-of-representation-or-jeez-you-people-really-hate-a-kill-joy/ )

  10. OMG! I can’t believe I stumbled onto this blog. I was actually searching for an audio snippet of the girls’ comments to keep on my iPhone. I just wolfed down a large handful of Fritos in a moment of weakness and was feeling kind of grossed out about it. Then the “Ew. Seriously? So Gross.” comnent popped into my head. I laughed out loud and thought the audio would be a nice reminder not to do stupid stuff like that.

    BTW, I’m a normal weight female, but that’s only because I try hard not to eat crap. Yeah, I slip up occasionally. Eating junk food is a bad habit and what we eat directly contributes to our health and the size of our bodies. Are we supposed to just ignore the health aspects and keep widening seats and aisles so those with no self-control can continue eating unabated?

    Seriously? Ew. That is so totally gross!

  11. There is no self-loathing, because I have some self-discipline. Maybe you should try it sometime and you wouldn’t feel so put-upon by a funny little commercial. Lighten up and laugh a little! Or just keep crusading for poor little fat girls. You are not doing them any favors because it is NOT healthy. It’s a fact that being overweight (and smoking) are lifestyle CHOICES that burden on the rest of society. It’s really very selfish of you. But go ahead and have another…cupcake.

    • Lord have mercy. You’re like a parody of your own self. Read a book, darlin’.

  12. “I do wonder at the idea of categorizing food choices into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ ”

    Really? I’m wondering if you are serious. I would consider a “bad” food choice as something that provides little nutrition and contributes to high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, etc. I would consider a good food choice the opposite. A fat laden, sugary snack is certainly not as good for you as a fruit or vegetable. Can you explain what you mean? I’m trying to understand.

    Also, I find this commerical funny, and I think you are missing the point. A bad choice is using snarky high-school girls to help you change your eating habits to what you want, rather than taking a more methodical approach. I don’t look at the guy as “fat”, but as someone who wants to change something about themselves, and goes about it in an way that is “not effective”, in the same way that using another insurance company is “not effective” when compared to using Geico.


    • Hey Matt – I believe that you *are* trying to understand my perspective, so I’ll give explaining it a shot. However, we are functioning from two very different perspectives here, so please do try to keep an open mind.

      It seems like common sense that some foods are bad and some foods are good. Certainly no one can argue that some foods have more nutritional value than others. This, however, is not what I’m referring to.

      Before I begin in earnest, let me just say this: There are a lot of people who are fat and who eat really ‘healthy’ diets, who exercise regularly and who are just as fit as any thin person who does the same. People don’t like to believe that because it flies in the face of everything they’ve been told about food and bodies their entire lives. Fact is, though, they exist. Just like super unhealthy thin people who eat less nutritional food and are sedentary. There’s no one way to be fat, just like there’s no one way to be thin.

      So let’s move away from this being about fat people and shift the conversation to people of all sizes who are working on self-care in their relationship with food. The simple math of it is this:

      Restriction + Shame = Compulsion.

      Whether that restriction is coming from your own self or at the hand of another, whether you are shaming yourself or being shamed by parents/peers, the equation remains the same. Forced behavior that defies your natural instincts and desires quite often leads to compulsive behavior. It breaks the body’s natural relationship with the mind, it quiets the natural cues your body gives about things it wants and it creates a complicated moral relationship with something that is neither moral or amoral. For those who struggle with their relationship with food, that body/mind connection is muffled or silenced completely by a lifetime of prescribed behavior. The constant pull between market-driven messages of hedonism, reward and indulgence and more puritanical societal conventions of health and productive citizenship is crazy-making. Not to mention there’s a crap-ton of classism and racism that’s going on here (look up food deserts) that also contribute to the body’s ability to get the food it wants when it knows it wants it. Add in our parents’ issues with food, their controlling behavior and dictation of our eating from the earliest age and most of us, to varying degrees, are guaranteed a complex relationship with food and our bodies.

      So, in trying to fix this, most folks turn to restriction, to more external controls, formulaic “plans”, to ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods, to allowed and disallowed – to more rules and conventions that do nothing to heal the natural bond between our own minds and bodies. Counter-intuitively, the best way to heal this rift is to relax. To let yourself eat whatever the hell you want, and as much of it as you want, until your mind realizes that there are no rules it needs to be rebellious against, there is no coming scarcity it needs to prepare your body for, there is no shame that requires that vicious circle of consumption, shame, and consumption to ease the shame. When we break free of those “reactionary” eating behaviors that are rooted in our reactionary emotions, when we really give ourselves permission to eat whatever we want whenever we want, and when we remove shame and compulsion from the picture, that ‘still small voice’ of our body’s inherent desire for balance can reappear. It won’t be silenced by convention or fear or self-loathing. And likely things will fall into balance.

      That’s why good food and bad food isn’t helpful. It’s just another set of rules.

  13. Great psychoanalysis. You know the marketing execs thought about the same points you brought up before taking this public….love it.

    • Exactly. Understanding this stuff is what makes a good marketer. Not that every marketer villainously sets out specifically to undermine fat people at every turn, but they do seek to identify and exploit weaknesses in everyone’s desires to belong and be accepted. That’s why marketing WORKS. The idea that none of this happens with intent is the reason it’s never significantly challenged.

  14. This commercial is hilarious. Some people are just putting way too much into this. The concept is original and I applaud the writers who wrote this commercial. Hil to the larious. This is entertainment people!!!!

    • No offense, Hirsch – but what *precisely* is original about basing the premise of a commercial on someone’s insecurity and desire to belong? Pretty much that’s the recipe for every commercial in every form of media, like, ever. Problem. Reaction. Solution. Dig a hole, fill it with product. This man wants to save money. It’s a given that he needs to lose weight because, of course, everyone does. The fact that it’s a ‘given’ is how myth naturalizes into dominant ideologies. The more something appears to be a ‘given’, the more it is ingrained into the social imaginary. And the more people like you who just think shit is funny without bothering to muster even a hint of a critical glance at it, the more harmful stereotypes cement and damage the fabric of our societies and the more marginalized people become.

  15. I see the estrogen working overtime on this blog. I am male, fat, over 40, bald, and I found the ad funny. Period.

    • Seriously – Rambo? Estrogen? Period? You’re like an embodied stereotype. A) Contrary to your firmly held beliefs about the world, you have no authority here, so take your Period and toddle back into the 1950s where you belong. B) If estrogen = educated logic based on the teachings of predominantly male philosophers, then yes. Take a big whiff of all the ‘girly’ pheromones up in here. C) Just…seriously??