Tag Archives: meaning manufacture

Flo motion: That Progressive ad starring Stephanie Courtney

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.

Handmade marketing

It’s turning out to be a long march.  Some 50 years ago, marketers made mass meanings…for mass markets…with mass media.  Nowadays, people are crafting brand meanings very much more particularly, making micro meanings…for micro markets…with micro media.  

At the extreme, this would mean making entirely custom meanings for very individual individuals with ever finer instruments of meaning manufacturer.  But we are some way off. And we may never reach that station.  

Still we get glimpses time to time of a world of absolute particularity.  Rob Walker and colleagues at Significant Objects give us objects to which meanings have been added in acts of handmade marketing.  It’s pretty astounding.  And of course, we know that some consumers are customizing like crazy.  

And look at this.  It’s a passage from a review of The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. By Edmund de Waal. (Chatto & Windus in the UK, and as The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US.  Not till August.)

But Mr de Waal, a noted British potter and ceramicist, is intently concerned with “how objects get handled, used and handed on”. For him the netsuke, so small and captivating, were not enough as a mere signpost to a family history. He wanted “to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers—hard and tricky and Japanese—and where it has been… I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows.”

And, wonder of wonders, this is exactly what he achieves. We learn not only how the light fell from the windows, but how it reflected from the carpets and brocades that vied for attention with the netsuke nestled on green velvet in their black lacquer vitrine, and how it grew greyer when wartime privations in Vienna limited the cleaning of the glass. We learn about Viktor’s nervous tic of wiping his hand across his face as if rearranging it, and the way Emmy would spend 40 minutes having her curls pinned one by one to the brim of her hat for a day at the races, and at what times marching bands paraded past their windows and what epaulettes they wore, and how Charles carried his cane and arranged his paintings, and the mix of awe and sensuality that he must have felt as he picked up a netsuke and turned it over in his hands. From a hard and vast archival mass of journals, memoirs, newspaper clippings and art-history books, Mr de Waal has fashioned, stroke by minuscule stroke, a book as fresh with detail as if it had been written from life, and as full of beauty and whimsy as a netsuke from the hands of a master carver. Buy two copies of his book; keep one and give the other to your closest bookish friend.

Fantastic.  This is a kind of retroactive meaning making.  It take it it’s mostly surmise.  But what surmise!  By constructing the life of the object, and it’s life in the lives of people and other objects, he gives us a feeling for the nuance with which objects take on and give off their meanings.  Not to mention inspiration for those who wished to make marketing by hand. 


Anonymous.  2010.  Review of the Hare With Amber Eyes.  The Economist.  May 22.  here.

Significant Objects here.


Recycling: adding value by adding meaning

As a comment to yesterday’s post, Jon Foulkes said,

So an extension to this idea: where the bag isn’t just handed down, but can tell you what it’s been up to. Could make second-hand stuff much more desirable than new.


Most things that are used are seen to be diminished by use. Depreciation is not just an economic concept. It’s a cultural fact. Once something has been owned by someone it is soiled, profaned, yuuky, somehow. We continue to have the idea that things come from the factory in a state of grace. Ready for ownership. Ready for us. Any ownership diminishes them.

But what if these products were blank, storyless, tedious. What if objects straight from the factory seemed somehow orphaned, smaller and less interesting for the fact of their pristine condition.  If we care about recycling, we want objects to be better at absorbing and recording and reporting their histories. Of course, some objects will be incapable of telling stories: bottles and newspapers for instance. But clothing, furniture, technology, these could be storyful. And they could spared the landfill for one or more cycles of ownership by the stories they bring us.

There are three problems here. One is technical: how to make the object capable of recording and then retelling its story. One is cultural or rhetorical: how to choose and craft the best stories, the narrative that creates the most value. And the last is economic: how to figure out how to think about what kind of value this is, and how it can be measured, distributed, captured and stored in the marketplace. Oh, we do have our work cut out for us.


Shannon South offers to turn "your Dad’s jacket" into a purse at her reMade USA website here.

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle of early 2010.  It was reposted December 26, 2010.  

Tumi and the case of the talking suitcase

Yesterday, I puzzled a few readers.

Let me be more clear (and less alarming). The best way to do this is to talk by example.

Let’s begin with the Tumi bag I bought in Seattle last week.

What I want is a stream of messages from this piece of luggage. It can come in the tweet stream on my iPhone. Or it can print out in the handle of the bag itself. We are assuming the bag is equipped with wireless capability and GPS.

I like the idea of learning on the taxi to the airport that my Tumi bag is, in truth, a little afraid of flying. I like the idea of learning that when in Seattle last week it really liked that carpet in the elevator (pictured here). My Tumi could have an entire, entirely poetic, vocabulary for hotel surfaces. I like the idea that it is noticing things I don’t.

I love the idea of the hearing my bag murmur (by way of twitter) that the man at the check-in desk wasn’t really very polite. Or, more dramatically, that he has only 5 days to live. (The idea of a piece of luggage claiming mystical knowledge of the future is especially charming. Perhaps that’s just me.) I like the idea of luggage that’s a little bad tempered, put upon, inclined to grumble, quick to take offense.

I am not asking for a full time writer standing by. There are only so many hotels in Seattle. When GPS signals that I am staying at the Sorrento, I would be easy enough to determine where the bag is and what it is "seeing." When I am in any moving vehicle on the road, chances are it’s a cab. In other words, it wouldn’t be very hard to feed locational cues into a machine based grammar which could then generate messages so situationally sensitive they have the hum of veracity.

The larger issue is straight forward. We already charge inanimate objects with meanings. We do this routinely through the branding process. The question is are there other kinds of meanings that could be brought into play. They would be more companionable message, more customized and customizable, and, more to the marketing point, they would make Tumi a brand with whom I have a deeper bond. There is no brand loyalty like this loyalty.

How about this as an anthropological indicator. I don’t name my luggage at the moment. (In fact, I don’t think I name anything that’s inanimate.) But if my Tumi luggage were expressive in this way, I pretty certain I would give it a name. Maybe this is what we should be shooting for. Naming. If and when the consumer names the product, that’s when we know something remarkable has been accomplished in the way of meaning manufacture. We have so animated the product that consumers no long see goods as inanimate.

Less alarming. No?

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle of 2009.  It was reposted Feb. 2, 2010.  

Buy this product: we have writers standing by

Today Very Short List pointed us towards a site called Unhappyhipsters in which images like the one above are fetched from the pages of Dwell magazine and then given small narrative indicators that give them new meaning.

"It become their routine…"  Wonderful.

Last week, on the post on Significant Objects, I contemplated a commercial world in which new products came with narratives attached, new meanings, which we could use to reimagine our present circumstances.

I just bought a new bag from Tumi.  My last one gave up the ghost last week in Seattle.  I like the idea of getting messages from Tumi as it imagines the things that are or could be happening to me.  With a link to my TripIt file, Tumi could know where I am, even, if I allowed it, what hotel I was staying it.  With GPS location permission, I could have a rough idea of my circumstances.  All of this data makes it possible to feed me a stream of narrative suggestions that are plausible at least by time and place.

Oh, alright.  This isn’t quite right.  But the idea remains promising.  Consumer goods, thanks to brands and meaning makers in the world of marketing, have always come with meanings. And they will continue to do so.  But in addition to these quite general meanings, it is possible for the brand to communicate many more particular meanings.  As long as they some how resonate with what is happening in my life, they will be interesting and fun.  Animating, actually.

"We have writers standing by!"  When does this become a brand promise?


The Very Short List treatment is here.

The Unhappy Hipsters website is here.

Meaning manufacture, old and new (Significant Objects)

In the old days, most of the meanings of our objects came prefab.

This what brands did for us. Brands, and the advertisers, planners, researchers, and  marketers who made them.

Inevitably we would add meanings to our possessions.  We might finesse the ones we found there.  But mostly, anyone with the same objects had the same meanings.  Thus did our material culture make our culture material.

We have since seen the rise of custom-made meanings.  This is one of the reasons we like antique fairs, and farmer’s markets is that these objects have been stripped of their original meanings and taken on new, historical, ones.  What used to be someone’s tea cup is now our Victorian teacup.

It’s the reason we like the tourist trinkets we bring back from vacation.  These were likely hand made somewhere.  That textile just says Mexico.  More than that, it says, "our vacation in Mexico."

It’s also the reason we like artisanal goods, the chocolates, beer and bread that is so popular now.  There are no brands here. These products take their meaning mostly from the process of hand crafting and the person who made them.  These objects come with stories more than meanings and we like to tell these stories.  "Well, Frank, that’s the guy who made these chocolates, he’s got that little shop down on Cambie, Frank used to be a professional football player.  No, I am not kidding."

Of course this sort of thing has always been true of high end restaurants.  This has always been hand crafted, unbranded (at least in so far as national brands are concerned), and meanings that come with this food are all about this very particular restaurant, chef, owner, designer, etc.  Here the brand is a man or a women.

The rich like to live in a relatively unbranded world.  Kitchens, furniture, bespoke tailoring, all of this is completely custom made.  It’s fun to go due north on Madison, I think it is.  In mid town, we are looking at branded stores, but as we hit the the upper east side, the brands fall away.  Now all the shops are little and very particular.  This is no brand land.

Experiments like Etsy give us a glimpse of a democratized version of this world.  Now, the rest of us can own customized stuff. No brands.  No manufacture in the industrial sense.  What we buy from Etsy.com is unique and if its to mean something, it will be because we have invested it with meanings particular to our own lives and sensibilities.

So I was interested to note the website called Significant Objects.  (Thanks to Leora Kornfeld for the head’s up.)  This was invented by Joshua Glenn, Matthew Battles, Rob Walker and others in the summer of 2009.  Here’s how they describe what they do.  (Sorry to be vague about the founders of Significant Objects but they appear to take pains to efface their identities on the SO website.  I can’t but wonder whether they are waiting for authors to supply identities for them…or at least names.  Excellent strategy.)

Significant Objects has three steps:

1. The experiment’s curators purchase objects — for no more than a few dollars — from thrift stores and garage sales.

2. A participating writer is paired with an object. He or she then writes a fictional story, in any style or voice, about the object. Voila! An unremarkable, castoff thingamajig has suddenly become a “significant” object!

3. Each significant object is listed for sale on eBay. The s.o. is pictured, but instead of a factual description the s.o.’s newly written fictional story is used. However, care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author’s byline will appear with his or her story.

The first version of Significant objects can be defined still more particularly:

Significant Objects was originally intended as an experiment exploring the relationship between narrative and value. (In fact, we didn’t think many writers would want to participate — before we launched the experiment, we listed 100 writers we knew or just admired and asked ourselves, “How do we convince/cajole/trick/browbeat these talented people into helping us with no guarantee that they’ll get anything out of it whatsoever?”) Our goal, then as now, was not simply to generate content, or to provide writers with a fun creative exercise, but instead to pair our carefully curated objects with stories that we’d curated every bit as carefully. We want the site to offer a consistently great reading experience — and we put a lot of effort into that.

The relationship between narrative and value.  How very interesting.  Economics is not very good on this relationship.  Indeed the idea that stories can create value is a little mystifying.  And this would be a good time to come to terms with this, because as I say, it is the coming thing.

I fell to thinking about a variation of the SO theme.  As it stands, in what remains of the old world of marketing, a watch comes charged with some standard meanings, crafted by the CMO, the brand, agency and its creatives.  Take for instance the Rolex that uses the Bond movie franchise to give the watch a certain quality of romance, danger, adventure, etc.

A SO approach would craft the meaning of the objects more particularly.   The brand could engage a team of writers and have them standing by to deliver stories to the owner, perhaps on a just in time basis.  What I am a buying the watch then is also a stream of stories that might come to me every day or week or month.  Tomorrow, I might get an email that reads

Today your watch is owned by a functionary, a man who lives in Ottawa and works for the Canadian government.  You have a secret.  You have embezzled $3 million from the Canadian government.  Today is actually is your last day.  You wouldn’t be here, but the embezzlement will finalize today. You are nervous.  Actually you’re sweating bullets.  Make it through today, and you can spend the rest of your life in some sunny country that laughs in the face of the Canadian extradition.  But you can’t help feeling that suspicions are flourishing.  You know people are looking at you.  Aren’t they? Every glance, every comment today will be charged with menace.  Have a nice day.

This is narrative and I believe our Rolex is more valuable for it.  As these stories change, as we enter the narratives that come with the watch, the watch becomes more and more valuable.  It serves as a portal on alternative realities and multiple selves.


See the Significant Objects website here.

See the Smoking Man Figurine complete with a very interesting story by Vicente Lozano here.  (this image lost in the melt down, see note below)

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle of 2009.  It was reposted December 25, 2010.

Local Motors: a glimpse of the future?

Is this a glimpse of the future?

Detroit without Detroit?

Detroit de-troited?

Local Motors outsources the design task (in this case to Mihai Panaitescu), builds variations on to a single chassis (in this case from BMW) and invites consumers to come to the plant (in Massachusetts) and help build the car.

Customization, local content, consumer participation (aka cocreation), these things are now happening everywhere in Western economies.  But it looked as if certain industries would remain locked in the old world of mass and mono manufacture.  Any industry that is capital intensive, constrained by government requirement, and engaged in a complex production process…surely this would continue to make product the old fashioned way.

Enter Local Motors

In the FAQ, Local Motors asks this question:

How does Local Motors intend to build and sell cars?  Doesn’t this cost hundreds of millions of dollars?

Their answer:

To compete with the major auto manufacturers, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. However, we do not intend to compete with them in terms of size or mass appeal. Our focus is specifically car enthusiasts and design lovers. We intend a simpler product and a lower volume. You might ask then why customers will pay for that simplicity, and we would answer that the specialized local nature of the business is meant to make up for that differentiation. We are ALL ABOUT bringing the fun of cars back to people’s hometown. Think of Micro-Beer for cars or Organic Food markets. What would you pay more for: a generic beer purchased at a 7-11, or a custom Micro-Brew? Where would you rather shop: an Organic Food Market with local produce, or a Supermarket Chain? The products at these types of local places are simpler and created with less manufacturing complexity, though they cost more because they are special and lower volume. Therefore, we do not intend to create a large OEM only to sell cars through dealerships. Volume is not our thing.

The strategy here is interesting, micro manufacture, niche markets, branding by location, making locality the basis of product variation.  It’s all about going intensive where cars have traditionally been extensive.  "Volume is not our thing."

The FAQ then asks:

How will Local Motors sell cars?

The answer:

Cars will be sold from specialized facilities distributed across the United States. These local facilities will not only stimulate local economies, they will be a source of pride for the entire community.

Local Motors will create an aspirational experience of scarcity driven demand whereby the local factory will create a Wonka-like fascination with its products and methods. Not only will it sell its cars, but it will sell the experience of people being able to visit and watch their car being "born."

Now, the factory, long the guilty, throw-a-tarp-on-it, or at least put it on the edge of town, is now one of the sites of meaning manufacture.  Whether Local Motors can actually capture Wonka-like fascination remains to be seen, but perhaps for car enthusiasts and design lovers, this is not so hard.  In any case, the process of meaning manufacture is as different here as is the process of physical manufacture.

Clearly, an exercise like this still takes lots of capital.  But this model of car making feels like a return to the early days of the auto biz. When the game was played locally, by small players, with a massive amount of tinkering, and lots of participation from the owner.  What an interesting experiment.  The old dog learns new tricks.


For the Local Motors website, go here.


Thanks to Alan Moore for telling me about Local Motors this morning.  See Alan’s website here.

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle of last year.  It was reposted Dec. 24, 2010.  Apologies to those who left comments.  Those are long lost.  Sorry!