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Going with the Flo: The Longevity and Effectiveness of a Serialized Advertising Character

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I hate buying automobile insurance. It's far too much money I want to spend on something that's not tactile and doesn't provide pleasure, relief, or sustenance. But it's something I need in order to drive. And in economic terms, not only is it an intangible product, it's also inelastic -- it doesn't fall into the category of something not needed. It's required, and no matter what, I must buy it if I want to wheel around town in the old wagon.

But all this doesn't keep me from my displeasure of seeing Flo -- the lady in white who is rather homely but still cute in her own way, with her jet black hair tied up in that beehive wreck of a hairdo. Yeah, you know Flo, too, I'm sure. She's always doing all sorts of things on Progressive's ongoing serialization of her life's antics.

Flo's flowing all over the place, and she's been around for years now.

From Do you know this guy? Sure you do, he's more famous than Barack Obama and Kenny Chesney combined! But he's hardly as funny as John Belushi. And nobody's wondering what city he's visiting next.
Do you know this guy? Sure you do, he's more famous than Barack Obama and Kenny Chesney combined! But he's hardly as funny as John Belushi. And nobody's wondering what city he's visiting next.
(image by Kimberly Gauthier | Keep the Tail Wagging)

A lot of Flo's ads are meant to be funny, I guess; but the only ad I've ever found humorous is the one in which a middle-aged woman approaches Flo and inquires what happened to her husband that's made him so bold and brazen. From the brief conversation this woman has with Flo, it's apparent she's at her wit's end concerning her husband taking on the role of Superman. Then the scene shifts to some guy juggling three chain saws and a man approaches -- obviously the irate and bewildered woman's husband from the earlier scene -- and the man asks the juggler to give him one of the dangerous, loud, buzzing, tree-cutting tools. "Give me one, I can handle this," the guy tells the juggler. I get it, yeah, this guy's become invincible since he's insured by Progressive. He can do almost anything -- no matter how dangerous things get! Now this is funny. Very funny, as far as I see it. And it's even somewhat effective. Yep, if I get my leg sliced with some nasty tool like a chainsaw, I'm good to go with my Progressive medical plan, so call 911 and get me to the emergency room.

Other Progressive advertisements featuring Flo are meant to be humorous, too. Some feature two guys -- obvious insurance salesmen from a competing insurance company -- who do everything from breaking into Progressive's corporate headquarters (to discover some secret to the corporate goliath's success), to badgering Flo in sundry ridiculous ways, even jumping into the bushes when they discover they're being filmed and their employer might be privy to this viewership. And these men, who are dressed like used car salesmen -- always come away looking like morons. Personally I find these guys obnoxious and irritating but since humor is such a subjective thing, I guess others might find their antics humorous and entertaining.

All the advertising window-dressing -- all this drama and comedy -- are accompanied by Progressive's logo, and usually, how much money you can save by going with this company, along with options for bundling policies and saving bucks. Progressive's leading competitor, also into character serialization - GEICO - uses the statement in every ad that "Fifteen minutes can save you fifteen percent or more" in insurance costs.

GEICO, uses a green little lizard with a Cockney accent as its leading salesman and sometimes stand-up comic. Most recently, the GEICO gecko has traveled coast-to-coast to numerous American cities. It's always apparent that this little guy's making a sales pitch for GEICO, however, and he's not always used as a vehicle for comedy. At times he's as bone dry as a desert wind. A more comic character GEICO has used in recent years, a little piglet named Maxwell, also is an effective salesmen, but not nearly as good as the little green guy. And both animals are more irritating and obnoxious than funny, or, for that matter, even effective. It can be argued that the serialization of advertising actors, whether it be some homely lady in white, a little lizard, or a pig, have totally overshadowed the companies that they're supposed to represent. And I don't know of anyone who's ever told me: "I want to know the next thing Maxwell does," or "I can hardly wait to see the new Flo commercial" or "I want to see if my city is featured by that funny talking gecko thing."

From Hey Progressive, how's that facebook advertising working out for you? And how's it going with that never-ending TV blitz of this lady in white with the funky hairdo?
Hey Progressive, how's that facebook advertising working out for you? And how's it going with that never-ending TV blitz of this lady in white with the funky hairdo?
(image by woodleywonderworks)

Some televised ads, however -- usually intended to be humorous - leave me wondering what's being marketed. Some are so focused on trying to be funny and clever the product or service being sold is played down to such an extent that it might as well have been overlooked completely. When a company advertises and leaves out the selling point of why the ad is being featured, marketing fails and the result is oftentimes a pathetic attempt at comedy and a non-advertisement is the dilemma.

A Hostess Twinkies commercial, featuring a hungry grizzly bear and a weird couple in a house trailer in the woods ( see: ), is just wild and off-the-wall strange. Hitting the air nearly two decades ago when humor wasn't utilized nearly as much as the driving wheel behind TV advertising, like it is these days, the trailer's transformation into a giant twinkie for a split second near the end and then showing a box of the now defunct cream-filled treats for a bit longer makes me wonder why Hostess even bothered to post what was being marketed.

I know from personal experience that working with humor can be dangerous and dicey. I was a fiction editor for a literary magazine for 12 years and when we decided to publish a humor anthology, it sounded great. The trouble was, the editorial team couldn't ever decide on what was funny and what was a flop. What one editor found hilarious, another found absolutely silly, stupid and sometimes even revolting. In the end, the humor issue turned out to be one of our worst selling efforts and nobody was laughing, including many of our readers.

Humor is a subjective thing. What one might find hilarious, another might view with a poker face, and may even find totally stupid, repulsive, or offensive. In this short video spanning 3:20 minutes, Graeme Newell, emotional marketing expert for 602 Communications, tries to explain to a group of advertising and marketing professionals how to use humor to create a success in advertising (See: Newell says oftentimes in today's televised advertising, it's clear that humor overtakes everything and the product being sold is lost. An advertisement in which a thief shatters a driver's-side car windshield and steals a car with a chimpanzee in the backseat is funny, but what's being sold is unclear. And I agree with Newell. I have no idea what the Suburban Auto Group is, what it's selling, or what a car thief and a chimpanzee have to do with it all. Why is that chimp in the picture to begin with? I guess some might see this as humorous and cute, but I wasn't rolling off my chair in shits and giggles. The two advertisements that Newell say are effective and funny, however, I don't see as being either. The Bisquick ad breaks out into a corporate banner at its tail end, and I don't find a rotting roast wheeled into an emergency room, operated upon by a physician, then fly into the air and explode, with a crying delirious housewife used to close the scene out before flipping on the Bisquick corporate banner for a very brief interval, as humorous or good marketing. The acting in this ad is terrible and a middle-school student could have written a better script. It's stupid and annoying, in my opinion; a farce of a farce - but again, with humor being a subjective thing, some might roll off their recliners laughing uncontrollably after viewing this thing. And the ad using an elderly, Old World woman named Yaya, dressed in a dark drab shawl overcoat, with a babushka wrapped around her head, to sell an Athenos dressing, is not only stupid, it's offensive not only to the old woman but to the young, sexy, decked-out, modern housewife who Yaya calls "a prostitute". There's nothing funny here at all for me. Anyone with European blood pumping in their veins would probably be a bit ticked-off by this silly attempt at such an ethnic skit.

From Mayhem like me? Yes, he's a serial advertising character that gets beat up badly in each commercial. Talk about slapstick overkill!
Mayhem like me? Yes, he's a serial advertising character that gets beat up badly in each commercial. Talk about slapstick overkill!
(image by roberthuffstutter)

Newell tells the audience that in order to use humor to effectively sell a product "you must understand the rules of humor." Well, there are no rules to humor. It's such an abstract idiosyncratic reality (or non-reality) that there's a thin line between being offensive, silly, stupid, and aggravating, to being outrageously hilarious and crowd-pleasing funny.

A famous National Lampoon saying, "That's not funny, that's sick," sort of sums up dark, abrasive and offensive comedy. And what was funny in Carol Burnett's or Groucho Marx's time periods might not be good comedy for generations today. Not everyone found National Lampoon's brand of humor hilarious, but throngs did. And when's the last time you saw a NatLamp mag on a bookstore shelf? Ha ha hee hee.

I think brand recognition is the golden goose all advertisers are seeking in televised advertisements. All companies really want is for viewers to remember the name of their company and/or product. And they're more than willing to be stupid and grating to achieve this result. Just remember our name and what the product we sell is called. Cha-ching, cha-ching.

Instead of employing teams of eggheads with MBAs in marketing, companies should instead hire out-of-work or marginally employed stand-up comics and gag writers. I really think this would make for some great comedy and advertisements. Going to college and earning degrees doesn't make you a George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Carol Burnett, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Adam Sandler, Amy Poehler, or Tina Fey. Funny is funny and these greats really knew, or know, how to make all sorts of different types of personalities have a good, hard, belly laugh. Some of the best comics of all time weren't all that well educated. No, their educations came from experience and trial and error - doing long, grueling, tough years in comedy clubs and off-the-grid, obscure theaters. Being funny had a stiff price for them and their humor came with an intrinsic inevitable price-tag of hard work, disappointment, low-paying gigs and oftentimes tough and challenging lives traveling from city to city, from performance to performance.

We're bored to death and although some of us are laughing, if you knew how effective your brand recognition's comedy was getting all your loose corporate advertising dollars, you might actually cry - Mr. and Ms. CEO. How's about a talking horse like Mr. Ed? Chimps and monkeys are always humorous, just doing the crazy things that great apes do. Get a gibbon to sell your toothpaste. How's about a laughing hyena? A mean-talking, aggressive, nasty-tempered parrot squawking off one liners? Sure, these may work.

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Samuel Vargo has written for print and online magazines, university journals and commercial magazines. Mr. Vargo worked most of his adult life as a newspaper reporter, having spent about 20 years as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers and (more...)

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Agreed - humor in advertising can be aggravating a... by Larry Butler on Sunday, Jun 15, 2014 at 9:38:39 AM
Thanks for your insight, Larry Butler. I believe t... by Samuel Vargo on Sunday, Jun 15, 2014 at 10:02:02 AM
Televised advertisements are often meant to be fun... by Samuel Vargo on Sunday, Jun 15, 2014 at 11:18:33 PM