Television Commercial Plays Havoc With Meaning Of Common Expression

Geico’s “Rhetorical Questions” ad campaign has never been my favorite. Not even among the various rarely-amusing ad campaigns the insurance company has been concurrently running over the past few years. (I guess the cavemen ones would be my favorites? If only because of the one where the cavemen pull up on their motorcycles to the song that goes, “Don’t wanna hurt you/Try not to mess with your feelings…” I kinda like that one. That song is by a Swedish band called the Sounds, apparently.) But as lame as all those ads have been, this latest one takes the cake.

“Could switching to Geico really save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance,” asks the announcer we’ve seen ask that question so many times before, in his mock hard-boiled detective voice. Then, answering himself, “Does it take two to tango?”

To illustrate for us that, yes, it takes two tango, the commercial makers then show us a silly video of three people clumsily trying to dance the tango together. So we can see that the tango doesn’t work very well with three people dancing it together. Clearly, it would work better if there were only two of them.

Except that’s not what that expression means! No one ever says, “It takes two tango,” to get across the idea that there are too many people trying to do something at once. That would be, “Too many cooks spoil the broth,” or, even more appropriately, “Two’s company, three’s a crowd.”

“It takes two to tango,” means that the thing you’re talking about can not be done by just one person. As a quick visit to Wikipedia, or Eric Hirsch’s The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002) would have told the Geico ad copywriters:

“It takes two to tango is a common idiomatic expression which suggests something in which more than one person or other entity are paired in an inextricably-related and active manner, occasionally with negative connotations. The phrase recognizes that there are certain activities which cannot be achieved singly — like arguing, fighting, making love, dancing the tango.”

But they couldn’t have not known that, right? Everybody knows that. Is it just that they loved the bit where three people are dancing the tango so much, that they decided, “To hell with making any sense…”? Is the joke supposed to be on them, the ad guys? Like, “Look how dumb we are!”? Or, “Look how unafraid we are to look stupid!”? I don’t get it. (Maybe I’m the stupid one?) But how many people must have had to green-light this? How did it actually get on air?

What’s going on with the world?