Tag Archives: Only the Paranoid Survive

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.

Andy Grove and the mysteries of the inflection point

It begins like a classic HBS case study. Andy Grove and Gordon Moore are sitting in Grove’s office at Intel. They are deeply unhappy.  Intel is caught in a price war with the Japanese. 

Here’s how Mr. Grove describes what happened next:

I looked out the window at the Ferris wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and I asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?

It’s an amazing moment.  Intel’s most senior managers bring themselves to make the right decision, but only by contriving to step outside of themselves.  Grove is saying "what would we do if we weren’t us?"  He and Moore Grove and Moore have been in the memory chip business for so long, it is difficult for them now to see that it is, for Intel, over, and that the time has come to move on.  

This is the problem with a corporate culture.  It contains much of the cunning and intelligence of the corporation.  But it also contains deep seated assumptions that blind the senior decision maker.  "What we do" has become "who we are" and only be pretending to be someone else can Grove and Moore set themselves free.  As Grove puts it, "Intel equaled memories in all of our minds. How could we give up our identity?"

Grove has a pragmatic grasp of culture.  He sees it here in the corporation culture that constrains the senior manager.  And he has a feeling for how to manage cultural moments, as he demonstrated with his "what if" scenario with Moore.  

He is acutely sensitive to the way his "strategic inflection points" can work silently and invasively.

"New rules prevailed now—and they were powerful enough to force us into actions that cost us nearly half a billion dollars. The trouble was, not only didn’t we realize that the rules had changed—what was worse, we didn’t know what rules we now had to abide by."

And when he talks about this sort of thing, he is talking about culture.  More exactly, he is talking about a set of understandings and practices that have embedded themselves in employees and the corporation.  Grove talks about them as "rules" but if they were precisely this, they would be visible to employees, more obvious when changing, and easier to acquire when changed.  

Give the guy a break.  He’s an engineer.  A deeply gifted engineer who had quite a lot to do with the fact that I can now communicate with you in this manner and the machine on which I am now typing furiously.  So lighten up a little.

Still, a guy this astronomically smart would be smarter still if he had a formal idea of what culture is.  He would understand its formal properties.  He would be still more skillful in detecting cultural factors as causes and consequences of the inflections he describes so well.  


Grove, Andrew S. 1999. Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company. Crown Business.  (first passage is around location 1176 in the Kindle edition of this book; second passage is c. location 1184; third passage, 359)


Thanks to several people on Twitter who recently encouraged me to read this book.  I would mention you by name, but I can’t seem to retrieve our conversation.  If you read this, please identify yourselves.  Also, does Twitter have an archive?  

time colonies, time colonists: next new thing in marketing?

Until his death in 2000, Dennis Severs lived in London’s east-end in a house that had no running water, no electricity, no toilet, no shower, no toaster, no TV, no modern conveniences of any kind.  

Mr. Severs had done his best to take up residence in the 18th century, and he and his butler managed a pretty good job of it.

You could tour Mr. Severs’ house and as a limited version of time travel, it was a lot of fun.  I got a closer to the 18th century, even if I never felt I was moving away very much from the present day.

Historical recreations like the one by Mr. Severs, Colonial Williamsburg and Upper Canada Village give us a vivid sense of difference. When I was at Upper Canada Village, one of the visitors asked one of the staff, "So what’s it like to live without a car?"  The answer, "What’s a car?" gave everyone a nice little shock.  

The question is this: how and how long would we have to live in a historical recreation to begin to to lose touch with the present day in a useful way.  Human beings are wonderfully adaptive. We begin to recalibrate immediately. A couple of hours and we are sliding out of many assumptions and arrangements.  A couple of days, and we are well down the slippery slope and this close to Stockholm syndrome.   

The reason this is useful for marketers is the shock of reentry.  So much of good marketing is "getting our head out of the bucket" and "thinking outside the box" and otherwise relieving ourselves of the assumptions that prevent us from seeing what is "right before our eyes."

As Andy Grove puts it in his very interesting Only the Paranoid Survive: 

“All business operate by some set of unstated rules and sometimes these rules change—often in very significant ways.  Yet there is no flashing sign that heralds these rule changes. […] The trouble was, not only didn’t we realize that the rules had changed—what was worse, we didn’t know what rules we no had to abide by.”

Time travel really helps here.  Spend a couple of days in the 18th century and we would be gifted with sight.  Indeed, a couple of days in the 18th century would be worth its weight in ethnographies, focus groups and brain storms.  Things would just become ever so clear. Grove’s "unstated rules" wouldn’t be unstated anymore.

Hurray for someone.  There must be many people who would like to live in the 18th century or the 7th one for the matter.  I mean, who wants to live in the real world?  Most of us do it out of necessity and under protest.  Or we could take turns staffing the past, on our vacations possibly.  Every so often someone from the present day would come wondering in, clearly unclear on the rules in place.  Patiently, we would ask her "what’s a car?" and ever so gradually the visitor would begin to watch her unstated rules explode like overheated party balloons.  


Artley, Alexandra, and John Martin Robinson. 1985. The New Georgian Handbook. London: Ebury Press.
Grove, Andrew S. 1999. Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company. Crown Business, location 362 in Kindle format.
Severs, Dennis. 2002. 18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields. Chatto & Windus.
Next time:
Time colonies and travel for consumers.
(I am hoping I can pull this off.  At the moment all I have is the new Arcade Fire album on the suburbs and their magnificently interesting website that let’s us go home again.  The album may be hackneyed but this website, Negro, please.
Here’s the Arcade Fire http://thewildernessdowntown.com/
If you have other examples, for crying out loud, let me know.  Press time approaches.  
Thanks to Anne Moscicki for the Arcade Fire reference and to Jenson Bennett for the Andy Grove reference.