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Here’s a transcript of my appearance on the Nertz podcast episode 5, hosted by Mathew Klickstein. We talk about creating Flo for Progressive, geek culture, and more!

Mathew:

Welcome back to yet another episode of NERTZ, the podcast for nerd and geek culture. I’m your host, Mathew Klickstein. I can’t believe we’re on episode five already.

Today we’ve got someone very special, someone you wouldn’t really associate necessarily with nerd and geek culture, possibly. His name is John Park, and he’s one of the two creators of the Flo Progressive ad lady, that lady in those television commercials and just about everywhere else you look these days who’s trying to sell you Progressive auto and other insurance. John was the copywriter who helped to create Flo, and worked on that project with his production partner and longtime friend, Steve Reepmeyer, who was the art director.

I spoke with John a little while back and he told me about what it was like working at Arnold Worldwide, the agency of record, handling most of the marketing and advertising for Progressive; how he and Steve, two young guys in their thirties, were doing what they could to get into the creative department there in Arnold; and why they decided to create Flo the way that they did; and just what this does have to do with nerd and geek culture, which might surprise you.

First surprise, though: turns out that their original idea was not Flo at all.

John:

Flo wasn’t the first Progressive commercial that we came up with. We’d come up with a couple one-offs, and then we’d come up with one that featured the Progressive IRV, which is their immediate response vehicle. The IRV used to be a bigger part of their campaign before Flo came along. It’s the car that you see driving around with the big Progressive on the side of it, it featured that. This one actually, when the headlights came on, it projected this cool graphical portrayal of what Progressive does, which is they compare Progressive and other companies. They said, we love this idea, we think this could be a campaign. We were like, great! We wrote like four or five other commercials, and none of them ever got made. We did another one, and each time we would do a one-off. They say, “This is great! We want to turn this into a campaign.” We would write four or five more and then none of them would ever get shot.

We wrote Flo, and they said, “This is great! We think it can become a campaign!” We’re like, yeah, yeah. Whatever, whatever. We wrote like four or five more, and that was almost ten years ago.

Mathew:

What was the provenance of Flo herself? How did these two ad mavens on the rise come to the conclusion that now was the time to birth the delightful doyenne of insurance onto the small screen, and unbeknownst to themselves at the time, eventually, everywhere else?

John:

Every project starts with a creative brief. The creative brief has certain sections: what’s the business goal, why are we even getting paid to do what we do? What’s the expected benefit in terms of the marketing? Could be as simple as: “We want people to know that we have a new product”. Or “We want more people to think of us when they think of running shoes”. Or “We want to increase sales.” Which is a little bit disappointing probably, but that’s the reality of it.

Mathew:

Disappointing? Why? What Park means here is that this reality is that of the cutthroat, pragmatic, terra firma world of business. As Calvin Coolidge was misquoted as having allegedly said, “The business of America is business.” Though we may wish, perhaps along with Park, that there was more of an imaginative quality to the creation of such fun-filled characters as Flo, the brutal brass tacks here is that when it comes to advertising, of course, inevitably, it’s all about brand metrics, media surveys, and (you’ll excuse the pun) flow charts.

John:

Then there’s the media experts. I was never involved in those conversations so I’m not really up on them, but maybe they would say, basic cable is done, we’re going to go towards HBO, or whatever. If we spend a million dollars on this, then they’ll also give us this on their website.

The strategy people bring it all together, and then the creative department … There will be somebody on the creative department also weighing in on the creative brief. Before it came to me, it would have gone through a process where the executive creative director or the creative director signed off on it and they said, “This brief is good,”or “This brief is needs work. It doesn’t give us enough guidance,” or “It gives us too much guidance and you’re not going to get anything creative out of it,” or “You’re trying to say too much,” or “You’re trying to be everything to everyone,” or “You’re going to bore the pants off of the audience.”

Mathew:

The creative brief is, for the most part, a general outline for what the ad will end up becoming. It’s usually only a page or two. Brevity is certainly the soul of wit here. Sometimes, it can be even pithier than that, as Park revealed about a telling adage put out by J. Walter Thompson.

John:

JWT came up with, a long long time ago, “convince that because.”

Convince somebody; that something; because something.

Convince the milk buyers in the family that they should buy extra milk because running out of milk at the wrong time really sucks. That’s a creative brief that would’ve turned into the Got Milk campaign.

Some people think that a creative brief only needs to be a sentence. Others like to have as much brand planning data as possible. “If this is the target, what they really care about is savings, or saving time; or what they really care about is their family, or what they really care about is their image, or what they really care about is utility, or convenience, or having the coolest thing.”

Whether you want that data depends on what kind of creative you are. I mean, there were some people, who were crazy, that wrote TV commercials that never watched TV, because they thought that watching commercials would kind of shut down their brain. Every creative is different, and you figure out what really helps. To me, having that kind of background research really helped.

Mathew:

Unlike so many of the rest of us who might find commercials and advertisements to be, well, irritating and interruptive, Park confessed here that he’s one of those people who has a special place in his heart for commercials. Even when he sees one he doesn’t like, there’s always an emotional resonance there that can be inspirational for his work. That’s right, John Park geeks out on commercials.

John:

I kind of fell in love with commercials and I still haven’t gotten over that love of them. Maybe because of that, when I hate a commercial I really, really hate it. They’re kind of polarizing to me, I always have an opinion on an ad. Having been through the process, in that very short sliver of my life, having been through that process, I also I know what it must’ve been like when it was first pitched to the creative director. What it must’ve been like to pitch that to the client. How it might’ve changed from when it was just an idea in the creative’s mind to when it was pitched. And then when it was actually shot and edited. I imagine things that might’ve been difficult on the set, or maybe what the director is going through.

I always was kind of into commercials. And then when it was my job to make them I kind of started picking them apart a little bit to kind of think about it, reverse engineer. How would you come up with that idea? Often it’s just asking the right weird question, and just trying to come at it from a difficult. It would’ve been sad if I decided I wasn’t going to watch anymore TV commercials just because it was going to cloud my creative juices.

Mathew:

Let’s just get into it then. What was the creative brief like for Flo?

John:

Actually, this part I do remember. Part of the brief was, people buy their insurance, and they feel like they’re just throwing their money away, because they don’t get anything for it. You write a check every month and the money kind of disappears into thin air, and then you don’t get anything.

I think that’s where the store concept came from; let’s really visualize what it means. You don’t go to the store, but you get something that’s basically as concrete as if you had gone to the store.

From there it led to, well, who would be in the store? It was almost like we thought we knew it was a stupid idea when we came up with it, but let’s just follow this through to its stupid conclusion. And then we can close the door on it and let it go and think of other ideas.

So what if there was a store that you had to go to to buy your insurance? What would the store be like? What would the people be like? Who would actually be there? Would they be talking on their phones, would people actually be there with their laptops?
The very first spots actually had the glass doors that open as you walk into the store, and the way that the doors opened was a mouse cursor came and clicked on it and clicked on the Progressive.com and then it opened, and that’s how it kind of got around, “Why aren’t people on their laptops searching for insurance?”

We had to think through that whole construct, and before we even thought, “Okay, we’re going to show this as an idea…”

Mathew:

It was a place first, and then you created the sort of guide at that place?

John:

It was just a question first: “What if you actually had to go to the store and buy a box of insurance?”

Mathew:

Flo, then, would be this guide through the phantasmagoric store from where a customer could purchase insurance. This insurance, in turn, would come in the form of a here and now commodity, or box that Park likened to a particularly geeky accoutrement.

John:

It’s like when you go to the store and get those Xbox Live subscription things. All it really is is a twelve-digit code, right? But they put it on a card and they put the card in a box and they put the box in the shrink wrap and they hang it up on the wall so that you feel like, “I’m checking this thing out.” That’s kind of where we were going. Honestly, Matthew, we just got lucky with Stephanie Courtney, and I would say that’s probably a big chunk of the success of the campaign.

Mathew:

Park admitted that the actress, comedienne, Groundlings member, Stephanie Courtney, who would end up bringing his guide into the fantastical insurance store to life, was not his first choice. In retrospect, he laughingly says he’s a bit ashamed he didn’t see the magic of Courtney right away. She was clearly perfect for the ubiquitous role she has kept alive now so many years later, but at that time, there was something very special the young ad creative was looking for in the materialization of Flo.

John:

I think we were looking for a slightly old-fashioned kookiness, I think originally we’d thought she’d wear, like, cat-eye glasses. One of the reasons we named her Flo was that she would kind of have that sassy diner waitress type attitude, always positive, always open and warm, and yet maybe a little bit of an edge.

Mathew:

Here we discussed another element of Flo’s creation, fertilized from the stuff of geekness: that of her emotional veracity, that enthusiasm for whatever she’s doing or saying, tinged by a kind of self-deprecatory humor, sometimes conscious, other times more done in the way of dramatic irony. It’s always in good fun, but she’ll maybe make a joke, or she might be the joke, and just isn’t aware of it.

John:

The challenge is that humor almost always is at the expense of someone. If you want to make people laugh, you have to make them laugh about something or someone. Robin Williams was great, and Joan Rivers was also great, at a brand of humor that wasn’t at the expense of anyone, everybody was in on the joke, and that adds a layer of difficulty to it.

It’s easier to make fun of other people and do a brand of humor from that, but you can’t have a spokesperson that makes people laugh by making fun of a certain group of people. So you kind of have to resign yourself to that. You have to work hard at coming up with is a brand of humor or a character who is funny, yet inclusive. She tells a joke, but everybody’s kind of in on the joke, or she tells a joke to release tension, and so she’s actually doing a good thing; or she tells a joke that’s kind of self-deprecating, so, if it’s going to be at the expense of someone, let it be at the expense of yourself.

Mathew:

This self-deprecatory jubilance of Flo’s is also what makes her a great guide in the realm of insurance. She’s someone you can seem to be friendly with, someone you can feel you can trust and who won’t necessarily stab you in the back, so to speak. Flo, who was originally going to wear glasses, in fact, is a little more girl next door, a little more like us, or lumpen than the traditional blonde bombshell spokesmodel who was more prevalent in the days before this character hit the screen. Her kind of quirky nerdiness and geeking out on insurance, of all things, sort of helps us connect with her.

There’s a sense of security there, a sense of what another interviewee I spoke with, Dr. Sandra Calvert, in episode one of NERTZ, refers to as a parasocial relationship. You find Flo funny, a little awkward and familiar, and so you trust her. You trust what she’s selling and are more willing to buy it, which is all especially important when we’re talking about security itself, or in this case, insurance.

John:

I think we didn’t want to have anybody who was threatening to women. I think the blonde bombshell often is for beers and fast food and Burger King. Often, you turn on one demographic at the expense of turning another off. Often, the people that are buying the car insurance skew towards the moms, so we didn’t want to have anything, anyone that would be a threat to them. Those antenna go up pretty quickly, just subconsciously, so I think that was an important part. We just wanted somebody who was smart, you could tell that deep down they were very smart, intelligent. It was almost like a person who can joke about insurance, who can crack jokes about insurance, must be pretty smart, because it’s not a very funny subject, right? The person that is … We’re almost like, she doesn’t care, she doesn’t take anything seriously except insurance. We were like, we can make this happen, then. That would be awesome.

Again, it comes back to Stephanie having the chops to be able to pull it off. The scripts, at least very early on, followed a very standard formula. Talk about insurance, talk about insurance, talk about insurance, Stephanie cracks a joke, our card, you’re out. If she couldn’t get people to … She had to talk about the insurance in a smart and engaging way, and then she had to crack a joke that was pitch perfect, and then maybe people would be paying attention when you said, click or call today.

That maybe is where the quirkiness necessitated from. You kind of have a quirky visual interest and expression, because for the first fifty, sixty percent of the commercial, you’re talking about how, if you bundle, you’ll save money, and that includes homeowner’s insurance. You have to say the word insurance. It’s almost like when that person told Stephen Hawking that every equation he put into A Brief History of Time would reduce the number of book sales by eighty percent. It’s like, every time you say the word insurance in a TV commercial, you lose half your audience.

Mathew:

Without using the term itself, Park agrees there’s a definite kind of para-social relationship here with Flo that is extremely important when it comes to distinguishing oneself in the selling of a product. Insurance is boring, and no one wants to watch a commercial about it; but if they are, quote-unquote, friends with Flo, or connect with her in some way, they’ll watch what she has to say, just to see what she does next, especially when, hey, she might crack a funny joke. Meanwhile, they’re learning about Progressive insurance while listening and watching.

John:

I would talk to people about Flo and they would be like, “Oh yeah! Flo! For Geico!” Or, “Oh yeah! Flo! For Allstate!” No. Flo for Progressive. That connection, Matthew, is hard enough. You definitely don’t want to have, if your competitors have blonde bombshells, you don’t want to be the third one at the party with a blonde bombshell. You want to have something own-able, and I think that quirky, wholesome, smart, very clever and quick-witted and yet helpful who wouldn’t hurt a fly, is something we ended up owning.

I do remember, we wrote a whole back story. You say, okay, here’s this person. What kind of car do they drive? What kind of house do they live in? What do they do in their off time? What are their favorite books? What kind of websites would they read? Are they a PC or Mac person? What kind of phone do they use? Where do they shop for their clothes? Stuff that you would never use in a TV commercial, but helps you as you’re writing; to say, this is a real person. It probably happens with novelists, too. They write a bunch of stuff that’s back story that doesn’t actually make it in the final manuscript, but it really helps them as they’re developing the character and writing about them. We went through that whole exercise.

Mathew:

Some of the aspects of creating Flo as a proverbial real person included much of the physionomy of what we see every time she appears, including her uber-geeky I love insurance pin, blue Chuck Taylors, and as Park says, so much makeup just to go sell insurance, because she’s simply that excited to do it. All very intentional.

John:

He (Steve Reepmeyer) came up with the outfit, the white jeans with the white polo shirt, with the apron with the Progressive on it. He came up with the little button that says I love insurance. He came up with the blue Chucks. I don’t remember when the makeup came into it, that may have been actually just on set. I think we were trying to come up with a visual, recognizable thing. Which is where we’d come up with the cat eye glasses, but when they got into makeup and they were trying to do a couple different looks, and they came up with her look. That makeup, by the way, I think is going to help Stephanie when she’s all done with this, to not be typecast. She doesn’t have to be the “you’re getting a Dell!” person, because without the makeup, she’s not as recognizable as Flo.

Mathew:

As we already discussed, this makeup of Flo’s has another purpose, too. She’s not quite out there like John Waters’ perennial anti-heroine Divine, and yet that makeup of Flo’s is fairly hyperbolic. It really accentuates how excited, maybe even fanatical, she is about insurance and what she’s doing. It definitely lends something to her squeeing fan girl-ness over, of all things, car insurance. P.S., for the skeptical listener, here’s where John himself admits to the geeky quality of Flo’s personality.

John:

She’s the type of person that would be excited no matter what she was selling, but she sells insurance, so she’s super into that,  and knows it so well because she knows the better she knows it, the better she can help people. I think that helpfulness was the biggest part of it, and I think the geeking out on it is just what she’s all about. She loves her nine to five just as much as she loves the five to nine.

Mathew:

Of course, we can’t talk about Flo without bringing up the big old white elephant in the room. Let’s be honest, gang, there’s a certain sexual appeal to this character. In all that geeky, awkward quirkiness, all that makeup and enthusiasm, there’s something subtly pruriant about Flo. In fact, my good friend, Dr. Mike Anderson, wrote his doctoral thesis on sexuality, analyzing the fantasies of five hundred different people. He told me the number one celebrity fantasy was, you guessed it: Flo. One would think this would’ve been intentional on Park’s part. Make her sexy and she’ll sell more product, right? But no. Remember, she’s not the prototypical blonde bombshell sales model. Flo’s something else. The sexual thing? Sort of an accidental byproduct.

John:

I would say probably ninety percent of that was unintended. Maybe not unintended, but it wasn’t on our list of top two or three things that we wanted people to think about when they thought of her. We were going for helpful, quirky, smart, positive, clever, funny. The idea of the kind of emotional attraction or that sexual energy, as far as I recall, I don’t think we ever kind of brought that up. That kind of would’ve been a third rail from the client’s point of view, too. It’s like, we need to sell insurance, and I don’t see where the bombshell factor helps us sell more policies, except for the fact that they would make it more memorable.

Mathew:

How much of this byproduct of the character is a sign of our times, though? After my interview with Suicide Girls cofounder, Missy Suicide, I found out that their recently released book was called Geekology. That’s right, a book of scantily, if at all, clad, young, nymphetic gals, all geeked out, holding old school Nintendo controllers and talking about their favorite Star Wars episode. There are plenty of what some call beta females as leading actresses today, who imbue a more realistic and sometimes even awkward or geeky girl next door appearance. We see this more and more with male actors and celebrities, too. Does Flo’s allure as an alternative spokesmodel say something about where our culture is going overall when it comes to what we find, or don’t find, attractive?

John:

I’m not sure when the transition happened from the era of the jocks to the era of the geeks or nerds, but I think it definitely creates what we were trying to do with Flo. I think if she was riding a wave, it would be that one. It goes back to the product, too. There’s nothing wrong with comparison shopping. From the era of the job, it’d just be, I got an agent, we play golf together, and he’s awesome. In the era of the geeks, it’s like, I’ve got an Excel spreadsheet, and I compared them and I figure out if I can save two percent here by doing automatic drafting, and that, but then my bank chart … I think that transition from one to the other made us feel more comfortable that we could have somebody who exuded smarts and think for yourself-edness, and do a little bit of legwork to get a better deal-edness, as opposed to, would want to drink beer and hang out and play golf with-edness, which is kind of the earlier paradigm. I can’t believe I just said paradigm.

Mathew:

Still skeptical of Flo’s connection to nerd culture? Well now, let Park do like Bob Dylan and bring it all back home again.

John:

There was a revolution where it was, you could replace ten people with one person running a machine, and then you could replace a hundred people with one person running a computer, and that revolution was starting to happen too. I think it was just kind of riding that wave of all the other changes that you mentioned, too.

Everybody knows about Comic Con, this cultural force that I would put up there with the Super Bowl. In terms of the mass media, obviously, Comic Con is going to be in the third block of the evening news if at all, and the Super Bowl gets covered for three weeks straight; but in terms of online and social media, it’s the cosplay at Comic Con Imgur thread is going to be a lot more popular and have a lot more traffic than thread titled  “I went to the Super Bowl and took these cool pictures.” Who cares about that? It’s boring.

It’s probably a ten, fifteen, twenty year shift from one to another, and she was probably right smack dab in the middle of it. I would say part of it was just an understanding that that was happening, and being okay with that opportunity. If we were still completely into physical beauty and physical prowess and leadership on the field of battle, we might’ve felt a little uncomfortable going with a character like Flo.

Maybe in the back of our minds, we knew that we needed Flo to be a certain way, and the change in tide gave us permission to do that, whereas we may not even gone with a spokesperson character-like thing if we couldn’t have had somebody who had those characteristics. I think it was less us unpacking the DNA of the trend and creating something to fit into that peg. It was more, “We think we’re going to be okay. We need to create a character who is smart and technologically savvy, and loves numbers and loves insurance. That wouldn’t necessarily have been be cool five or ten years ago, but maybe we’ve got permission to do that now.”

Mathew:

Park might be a little modest here in his suggestion that Flo was more of a sign of the geeky times and less of what Slavoj Zizek would refer to as master-signifier, establishing a new, wait for it, paradigm of sorts, in the realms of salespersons. After all, it wasn’t until after Flo that we began seeing a real influx of similar kinds of characters, like that quirky AT&T commercial figure, Lily, who’s almost a carbon copy of Flo in looks, personality, and overall message. This is what is called memetic isomorphism, the process through which a business emulates another based on the first business having found success doing a certain something or other. A handy dandy euphemism for, essentially, one business ripping off another’s successful idea; in this case, as Park says, the business attitude of, quote, geek is gorgeous, unquote.

John:

I think you and I both know that, Fortune 500 companies want to build a brand and don’t want to make any mistakes; but you also want to be accessible and identifiable to as big a swath of culture as possible. I would say that, without going back and seeing who else was out there in the cultural landscape, I would venture to guess that she was one of the first to embrace the idea that “geek is gorgeous”. No doubt that other teams who’ve tried to pitch a certain type of spokesperson had a little bit easier of a time by saying, “Hey, look at Flo. She’s kind of geeky, and yet people are drawn to her, and she’s kind of got a cult following. Maybe we can trap that lightning in a bottle too by applying it to cell phones.:”

Her lightning in a bottle is endearing, in that she can remain perky and excited and enthusiastic in a job that most people would kind of poke their eyes out at. “Maybe there is something to this, maybe insurance is exciting.” I do remember that being a brief at one point. “Exciting insurance.” It’s like, “Well, I’m really going to earn my keep on this one, because now I have to make insurance exciting.” Turns out, all you have to do is invent a person who’s really excited about insurance.

Mathew:

All right, we got through yet another episode of NERTZ. Mighty proud of you! I want to send out some big old thanks here to, of course, John Park, for talking with us. I want to again thank the Lawrence Public Library, and especially Ed Rose, for helping us out with some of the technical aspects and the recording of some of the extra stuff that was used here. Of course I want to thank my musician and producer, Mark Johnson. Thank you Mark.

I want to send out a big old thanks in particular to viewers like you. Listeners like you. Remember, you can find out more about NERTZ and hear some of our other episodes at NERTZpodcast.com. Find out more about me, your host, Mathew Klickstein, at www.matthewklickstein.com. You can find out even more still about just about anything you want, by stepping outside and looking at the world around you.

Thanks again, everybody! Have fun.