In this climate, in which CEOs – especially really wealthy heads of financial firms – are generally unpopular, it might seem dicey for one of them to appear prominently in an advertisement. Of course, there is a long tradition of company bosses and founders fronting for their firms' products and services. And there are good reasons for doing so. It saves ad agencies the cost and effort of hiring actors. CEOs are more likely to approve high-concept ads when they appear in them. Most significantly, they can work.
Over the years, CEO ad appearances have come in several forms. There's the CEO as product endorser. In the 1980s, Victor Kiam was a fixture in advertisements for the Remington razor. His famous pitch: "I liked it so much, that I bought the company." (Ads in the series can be seen here, and here. Why is former quarterback Doug Flutie in the latter ad? Kiam also owned the New England Patriots.) There's the founding CEO as folksy embodiment of the brand. Wendy's founder Dave Thomas routinely appeared in ads (like this one) pitching his aw-shucks demeanor and the fast-food joint's square burgers. There's the CEO explaining what his company does and trumpeting a slogan. Joseph Goryeb, CEO of Champion Mortgage, an early subprime lender, appeared in his advertisements, always uttering the catchphrase: "When your bank says no, Champion says yes." (Of course, those ads became obsolete when banks stopped saying no during the late credit bubble.)
And then there's the CEO as highly tattooed, bandana-ed rock star Axl Rose.
Huh? Yes, that's right. That's Warren Buffett hamming it up in a new ad for the auto insurance firm Geico. Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Geico, is an icon of American capitalism, the second wealthiest American and, we must add, a member of the board of directors of this site's parent company, the Washington Post Co.'s.
Insurance – and car insurance in particular – has become a surprisingly fertile field for creative ads. It could be that there's an inverse relationship between the intrinsic excitement/funniness of an industry and the ads crafted to pitch it. But in recent years, we've seen the highly popular and effective AFLAC duck, Progressive's wacky saleswoman Flo, and Geico's campaigns with the lizard, the googly eyes perched on dollar bills, and the cavemen. Now Geico has upped the ante once again.
The ad, like most things Buffett has done, works. Buffett has a well-honed sense of humor, and shows that while he takes his job and responsibility to shareholders very seriously, he doesn't take himself too seriously. His public persona is frequently self-deprecating. He's one of the few CEOs secure enough in his accomplishments, positions, and public persona that when an ad person came to him and suggested: "Hey, how about you wrap your head in a purple scarf, paint fake tattoos on your arms, put on a wig, and sing [off tune] while rocking back and forth?" The response was an enthusiastic "Yes."