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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 6/15/14

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.

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)
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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?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.

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Samuel Vargo worked as a full-time reporter and editor for more than 20 years at a number of daily newspapers and business journals. He was also an adjunct English professor at colleges and universities in Ohio, West Virginia, Mississippi (more...)

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