The idea that the GEICO commercial “He-Man vs. Skeletor” could introduce a new generation of fans to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe—an animated television series that first aired in syndication for two years in the mid-1980s and can now be seen on Netflix—delights Neel Williams and Justin Harris, VPs/creative directors from The Martin Agency, who created the spot.
“If just one child sees the spot, then decides to watch a He-Man episode as a result, well, we should probably just retire and become grape farmers or something. Our creative promise will have been fulfilled,” says Williams, who, like his creative partner, watched He-Man cartoons when he was a kid.
“I even had the action figures—He-Man, Man-At-Arms and a random character called Stinkor that actually smelled bad,” Williams recalls.
If you aren’t as versed in the He-Man universe, a quick primer: Although long rumored to have been an aborted Conan the Barbarian toyline (original toy maker Mattel refuted the claim and even won a lawsuit against Conan’s rights holders), He-Man was a muscular barbarian billed as the most powerful man in the universe, and he fought a rogue’s gallery of ghoulish baddies including main villain Skeletor. The toy line debuted in 1982, with the TV series following the next year.
Beyond tapping into their own nostalgia for the He-Man crew of heroes and villains, Williams and Harris were confident that other adults would get a kick out of seeing a new He-Man and Skeletor showdown, and they felt like adding an animated spot to GEICO’s “Great Answers” campaign, which until the release of this one, featured only live-action spots, would give it stylistic breadth.
In each of the commercials rolled out as part of the campaign since it launched last year, characters in sticky situations, including a thief on trial in one and a mole sitting in a car with mobsters in another, get out of trouble by bringing up how switching to GEICO can save you money on car insurance at just the right moment.
Before “He-Man vs. Skeletor” could go into production, The Martin Agency had to get Mattel to agree to license the characters for use in the spot. It turned out to be less treacherous than anticipated.
“You never know with licensed properties like this, but they were supportive from the very beginning. GEICO has great reach and a reputation for injecting ads into pop culture, both of which should be appealing to partner brands,” Williams says, stressing, “We try hard to respect the brand parameters we’re given so that everyone comes away feeling good about the end result.” Mattel also approved the use of live-action versions of He-Man and Skeletor in two ads created by Mother for the U.K.’s MoneySuperMarket.com this past year—and while they aimed for the same nostalgia button, they lacked the added element of the kitschy animation that defined the show and, in many ways, defined He-Man for a generation.
You hardly ever see 2D animation these days, and The Martin Agency needed to find an animator who could lovingly recreate the look of the original cartoon while making the humor pop, and the advertising agency hired animation director/producer J.J. Sedelmaier of J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, a go-to source for humorous animation for not just advertisers but also television shows including Saturday Night Live (Sedelmaier co-created The Ambiguously Gay Duo with Robert Smigel), The Daily Show and The Colbert Report among others.
The GEICO gig was right in his wheelhouse, Sedelmaier says. “One of the studio’s cap feathers is working with established character icons for advertising. In the past, we’ve done spots using [characters from] Speed Racer, The Jetsons, Schoolhouse Rock, Underdog, Ren & Stimpy, etc. So the idea of being able to add the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe crew to our list had all sorts of dandy potential.”
When it was produced in the 1980s by the Filmation animation studio, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was drawn on paper, the drawings were photocopied onto acetate celluloid, painted with cel-vinyl, photographed onto 35mm motion picture film and transferred onto videotape, Sedelmaier explains.
But he and his team at J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, including head animator Andy Friz, created the “He-Man vs. Skeletor” commercial in an entirely digital domain. “It’s drawn on a computer-based tablet, colored digitally, composed digitally and downloaded/uploaded as a digital file. It’s so much easier now and allows for more control over the work,” Sedelmaier says, adding, “I can’t imagine going back to the old process.”
While working digitally is less time consuming, care and finesse went into making the commercial look like it might have been pulled out of a time machine that went back into the 1980s in search of a lost He-Man and the Masters of the Universe episode. It was important to do that because many people watching this GEICO commercial will remember the characters from when they were kids.
"The bond you have with things you remember from childhood is pretty strong, and one’s personal nostalgia is like a narcotic. If you can recreate that for the viewer, you bond with them immediately,” Sedelmaier says. “But you have to be careful because these are people’s favorite memories. It’s got to be entertaining—humor always helps. But you can’t disparage the characters.”
Sedelmaier did add a fun modern touch to the commercial—Skeletor performs a celebratory “Yesssss!” arm jerk after he dupes He-Man and his crew.
Asked if making an animated spot is more difficult than working in the live-action realm, Harris answers, “Yes and no. Yes from the standpoint that you end up having to wear more hats with animation. In addition to creating the idea/script, we might help a little to plot out blocking and action and also help direct [voice] talent in the booth. But that was all under the watchful eye of J.J., so maybe it wasn’t quite so hard since he’d help steer us in the right direction if we veered off course too much.”
Expanding on the no portion of his reply, Harris muses, “And then I’d say it’s also not as difficult—from our standpoint, not J.J.’s—since there’s less moving parts in the form of casting, location scouting, permits, crew. Our agency producer, Brian Fox, also worked tirelessly to help bring this thing to life. It’s getting to work with such talented people on all sides that can make things so much easier.”
Sedelmaier says creatives and producers working in the advertising industry these days have a good sense of how to do animation. “It used to be that you had to indoctrinate your agency cohorts, and especially the client, into the animation process,” says Sedelmaier, who formed J.J. Sedelmaier Productions with his wife Patrice Sedelmaier in 1990. “But as of the past 10 years, creatives are very savvy. They’ve grown up knowing the process because animation is no longer a mysterious sort of craft.”
“That being said, each project does have its own aspects that need to be prepared for, and everyone has to be on board when it comes to schedules and budgets. One thing that’s terrific about a project like the GEICO one is you know that the agency has the support of the client, and they’re out to do stellar work—always. This means, I can look forward to more emphasis being on the work rather than other distracting logistics,” Sedelmaier says. “The priorities are sound.”