Ad campaigns are like corporations. Nothing happens without a big bold idea. But there is no hope of success without an unblinking eye to execution.
The devil is in the details.
Which brings me to the campaign created by John Park and Steve Reepmeyer at Arnold Worldwide for Progressive. It stars Stephanie Courtney as Flo.
Spot 1: no more holding her purse!
Flo greets a husband and wife. Flo shows them their car insurance options and then says to the husband,
"And no more holding her purse!"
The wife replies,
"It’s a European shoulder bag."
The husband adds,
"It was a gift."
Fair enough. Funny enough. Job well done.
But what sells the spot, and the insurance is the details and the acting.
The wife delivers "It’s a European shoulder bag" just about perfectly. Flo has just put her foot in it. The wife is salvaging the situation by returning this reality to her concept of it. This is what we call "putting a good face on it." All better. Her husband is no longer a girl. Flo needn’t be embarrassed by her mistake. What sells this moment especially is the beauty of the wife’s voice and how flutingly she uses it. No other voice or tone would have managed social repair.
The husband does a nice social repair of his own. He lets us know that he is obliged to carry the purse. (It was a gift.) Even as he tells us, by rolling his eyes, what he thinks of having to carry it. (His wife is a kook.) Hey presto, he’s saved face for both Flo and his wife. Good girl. Boy! I mean, boy.
And now Flo (aka Stephanie Courtney) does that little "bobble head" thing people do when they have just stepped into someone else’s madness and now wish to withdraw from it without of course in any way repudiating the madness (and they really mean that). They smile stupidly to show that of course they accept the terms of these deranged people and wish merely to be allowed to leave quietly. (I think anthropologically we could go a step further. Flo’s bobble head performance has a social logic. It says, "You may have lost face, but look, I’m too dim to have noticed! You’re fine!")
Here is the bobble head gesture (eyes right). How long does it take to get these details right? How long to train the actors in the first place, to give them the ability to play social situations…as if they were unfolding spontaneously. How long to find the actors? How much direction and take after take is then called for? This is an aspect of the creative process of meaning making that will probably never makes its way into social media. This is part of the art of advertising that could now be in peril.
Spot 2: Calculator humor
Courtney has special dramatic powers. I was impressed with a second spot, the one that features the line "calculator humor" and has Flo saying "I’ll be here all week" and then "I will. Those are my hours." (I can’t find a version of this anywhere on line. Please let me know if you find it somewhere)
With the blessing of a VCR, I played this spot a couple of times, first at full speed, then in slow motion. Flo motion? It’s astounding to see how fast and how cleanly Courtney gets into and out of each of the bits in the bit. (Andy Grove has a piece in his Only the Paranoid Survive about watching an image in transition and not being able to spot the exact moment of transition. Courtney’s acting here has that quality.)
A case in point:
In the "calculator humor" spot, Flo moves from stage 1 ("I’m here all week") to stage 2 (sly glance at customer) to stage 3 ("No, really those are my hours.") in the blink of an eye but with perfect clarity. These are quite different dramatic moments but she executes each of them cleanly. There’s no blur or "trail."
Bad actors make one of two mistakes. In the first, they can’t accelerate into and out of moment with Courtney’s deftness. It takes them awhile to lumber into stage 2 and then awhile to lumber out again. We show this here (eyes right) with long tails. This error means that the creatives cannot "pack" the signal and the spot is rendered thin and less engaging. Worst case, the ad becomes an exercise in tedium. The worst offender on air at the moment is for 5 hour energy drink. You actually need the drink to survive the ad. (I’ll be here all week.)
The second mistake comes when an actor has the ability to accelerate but cannot get far enough into the bit. We, the audience, is left to wonder where he or she might have gone. What we get is a rough indication of the social moment the actor and the creative meant to deliver. And no more. The spot, the campaign, the brand are shortchanged.
This is meaning manufacture and meaning manufacture as the ad biz has always done it. It takes a fantastic attention to detail. It means that the creatives and the actors must have a deep knowledge of how social interaction works. And they must use this knowledge to craft 30 seconds that engages us. It’s easy, I think, to look at an actress like Courtney in a spot like this, and see it as broad and goofy comedy.
But as usual our culture has wheels with wheels and the people who would contribute to it must have gifts within gifts. Hats off to Courtney, Park, Reepmeyer, Arnold and Progressive for this splendid work.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor.
The "and no more holding her purse!" Progressive ad on YouTube here.
The Wikipedia entry for Stephanie Courtney is here.
The Wikipedia entry for the Progressive campaign starring Flo is here.
“The husband does a nice social repair of his own. He lets us know that he is obliged to hold the purse. (It was a gift.)”
Maybe I’m reading your interpretation incorrectly, but isn’t the idea that it’s not the wife’s purse, it’s the husband’s “European shoulder bag” that he received as a gift? So she’s defending her husband’s manliness (“it’s a fashion thing, not my purse, you cretin”) and he’s defending his manliness too (“I wouldn’t carry it but it was a gift.” I suspect from the wife.) Flo averts her eyes from the whole awkward marital mess.
Chip, good catch, I have fixed the text, striking “hold” and adding “carry.” But I am not sure she’s defending his manliness, just the bag’s fashionableness. And yes Flo averts her eyes. Thanks.
True, on reviewing it, she does seem to be more defending its fashionableness. And I do like the “it was a gift” comment because husband is defending himself in the passive voice, so he doesn’t blame the wife, who probably stuck him with it.
One thing to like about this is that the nuances that you point out make viewing it multiple times a pleasure instead of a chore. The looks, the delivery, the acceleration, etc. make it unfold with further viewings.
This campaign instantly became one of my favorites. One note in this particular ad – I don’t think the husband is simply rolling his eyes, but rather using his eyes to indicate that the man-purse “gift” was in fact from his wife. He does this to signal to Flo “be careful now, it was from my wife so don’t say anything that will embarrass you and probably get me in trouble too.”
This whole campaign is marked by great acting, led by Stephanie. Personal favorite is the one where the dog Pickles hits a button to show comparison rates for a customer. Customer responds “That’s amazing!” referring to the rate comparison device. Flo responds, “I trained him myself” thinking the customer is referring to Pickles. The customer then gives Flo the “Ok you’re crazy” look and smile that Flo gave the man-purse couple! I think it’s actually a little better than Flo, the actress/customer just absolutely nails the timing, the nod, the smile, everything.
This got me thinking about a post you did a while back about Modern Family. Would you say that it is this kind of sequencing that significantly contributes to the allure of Modern Family? It feels to me like that the more concentrated curve (the first one above) occurs repeatedly throughout a Modern Family episode, perhaps assisted by the pseudo-documentary style …
Alex, beauty, thanks a million, I will have a look. Grant
Interestingly, Fast Company named the Flo ad campaign one of the worst of the year. http://www.fastcompany.com/1691071/the-worst-ads-of-2011, calling Flo “everybody’s wacky aunt.” Is this another case of ad-as-creative v. ad-as-sales tool?
Tom, I’d say Fast Company is experiencing “ad envy”! Progressive’s Flo campaign is very creative and when people see Flo, they don’t even have to see the entire commercial before they automatically connect it with Progressive Insurance.
And, Grant, sorry, but Flo’s “bobblehead” gesture is actually a sign that she knows she’s said enough and it’s time to “zip the lips.” Not a sign of ignorance but of understanding.
And to all: Flo rocks!