Written by Loren Logsdon   
Wednesday, 11 December 2013 00:00

After my column “Thoughts on Televising Advertising,” several people have thanked me for calling their attention to television commercials as short stories. One friend wrote, “Your observation that these ads are really incredibly short stories caught me up.” Another friend e-mailed to thank me for the same reason. The first friend continued, “Of course they are [short stories]; why had I never thought of them in just that way? They are narratives and that’s their appeal; we are hard wired to narration, and we don’t care who tells what.”

Such good responses have inspired me to look closely at another commercial for its success as an ongoing story: the Progressive Insurance ads, which seem to follow the same formula as the original Menards commercial. Like the Menards ads, Progressive has chosen a spokesperson who is just as fascinating and goofy as the Menards Man.

Both characters are eccentrics who quickly capture the viewers’ attention. With her heavy lipstick, her apron, her white “wedding” apparel, and her exaggerated manner of speaking, Flo is clearly no rocket scientist, no J.K. Rowling, and no Martha Stewart. Indeed, Flo is not a woman whom one would take home to meet mother. But despite her shortcomings, she is dedicated to her job and does her best to handle any situation that confronts her. 

Those creative people who write the ads are clearly making each Progressive commercial a short story. The best case in point is an ad entitled “Flodilocks.” The entire ad is patterned after Goldilocks and the Three Bears, with Flo having a mystical experience in which she enters a strange house and finds three insurance plans. The house is the home of the three bears, and Flo finds a plan which is just perfect.—the Progressive Plan, of course.  

Whether deliberate or not, there is one Progressive story that has a very serious message, a cautionary tale for our culture. In this Progressive story, the company has introduced a robot named rather appropriately Flobot. We have, then, all the trappings of human versus machine. Shades of Isaac Asimov’s robots and the Stepford wives! Flo does not welcome the competition from the robot. She is envious of the new “employee” and deliberately sabotages Flobot by removing her batteries. All of this is presented as comedy, but there are serious implications underneath the laughter and fun. Machines are taking jobs away from people. There is no doubt about that. Flo’s response is much like the Luddites in England in 19th century when the industrial revolution was putting some people out of work because of machines. The Luddites actually destroyed machinery in a futile attempt to save their way of life.  

Unemployment is a critical problem in our country, and I wonder if our politicians understand the full scope of the problem. It has to do largely with technology and its impact on our culture. In his book “Technopoly,” Neil Postman alerts us to the essential truth that technology is both a friend and a foe. He asks us to understand that the formula is not America plus technology but rather America changed by technology. Postman acknowledges the ways technology has been our friend, but he wants us to understand the ways it has been our enemy. Henry George anticipated this problem in the 19th century in his book “Progress and Poverty,” when he described a state of the arts railroad train on which hobos were riding. One of the unseen problems in unemployment is that many of the jobs have been eliminated by technology. They are simply not there any longer.  

Did the artists of the Progressive ads intend this message? Probably not because of the humor and the entertaining nature of the ad. After all, the primary goal is to sell a product. But the message is there and it is real, not a laughing matter. Flo’s removing Flobot’s batteries will not enable her to keep her job for very long. With her human limitations she will, like the Menards Man, lose her job. Flo’s fairy tale will turn into a harsh reality.  

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 December 2013 14:58
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