Flo and the Machine

I’ll admit to being a fan of those Progressive Insurance commercials. You know, the ones featuring Flo, who’s just the right mix of funny, assured, enigmatic, and desexualized sexy. I don’t know that there’s much more to say about her, but the commercials themselves are at worst pedestrian and at best playful and enjoyable.

Now, Flo works in a box store. This box store doesn’t peddle shit made in China. It doesn’t even sell made shit, period. It sells insurance, in boxes. (RTFM? All you got is the FM, suckah!) The sea of white that envelops the store and its scattered islands of shelves seems designed to evoke the furthest thing from, say, the numbing, metastatic concrete drear of the Hartford skyline. In this way, the Progressive commercials attempt, and in a way succeed, to make the most of what virtuous-circle thinking has done to the American economic machine. Insurance may be our last shot at anything resembling a growth industry, but at least we’ve got Flo (and Pickles and Captain Ahab) and an endless box-store whitewash to keep us chuckling and buffered from a growing reality.

The box is empty but the hair is real (and fabulous).

The box is empty but the hair is real (and fabulous). (Credit: Progressive.com)

Other insurance companies’ spots lay even wider claim (ha!) with their depictions of that reality. Farmers Insurance Group’s “University” spots engage little subtlety in their depiction of an institution where insurance adjusters enjoy small class sizes and luxurious facilities and participate in lively and efficient exchanges with their professor. It’s corporate indoctrination writ large enough to assume–presume–a status within the echelons of highest pedagogy. If insurance is what we now produce, then in a twisted way it makes sense that it’s also what we teach and learn.

The Farmers commercials aim for the same off-beat effect as the Progressive spots and, though they contain a few serviceable comic touches, generally fall flat. Where Flo & Co.’s efforts are breezy and effective, Farmers’ approach feels leaden and overwrought. Even J.K. Simmons (who’s nothing if not likable) and his heli-boat-auto-home thing can’t drag things to dry ground. The whole thing is just a little too kitchen-sinky–and the jingle at the end (“We are Farmers! Dun dun dun…”) is annoying. (I’m being kind; it’s noxious.)

If anything, the bits evoke Old School in the sense that they’re about grafting a new form onto the collegiate template–but the vehicle here is a corporate behemoth instead of a cadre of middle-aged putzes. And where that movie managed to wring a decent level of humor and charm from its creepy central conceit (watch it again and tell me it ain’t just that), the Farmers spots feel stale and too late, like a me-too sandwich made with month-old bread.

It’s not even clear if we’re supposed to conflate Farmers’ instructional system with an institution of higher learning, or if it’s Farmers itself that’s the university? Logic says the former, but the ads’ overall effect bleeds into the latter, and the ultimate message is fuzzy. More than this, though, is the gumption in simultaneously projecting and caricaturing a sad truth: We know American oligarchy has a dirty, multifarious grip on tertiary education, but the bold conflation of the corporate and the collegiate in these commercials splays that reality across a broad tableau in a way that’s patronizing and kind of foul. It’s like a funhouse mirror on the state of the nation; a warped reflection delivered with a smirk.

I suppose you could say that about a lot of other things. And don’t get me wrong–insurance can be a great and helpful tool. Plus, Flo seems like a heck of a gal. But in America, where farmers no longer farm, and progressive is spelled with a capital “P,” sometimes it seems like insurance is all we have left.

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Filed under Economy, Media

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