Don't fall in love with Obama,” I belatedly told my friends, who had already fallen in love with Obama. “He'll only disappoint you.”
But they were not to be warned off. They were smitten with his brilliance, his eloquence, his charm, his knowledge, his manifest humanity…all the stuff that got him not so much elected as beatified. Since then, those same friends have come to feel betrayed by their sainted president -- for selling them out on the environment, for prostrating himself before the NRA, for turning a blind eye to Goldman Sachs, for waiting until it was safe to (almost) endorse gay marriage, for lying in his advertising and stump speeches.
But they shouldn't feel betrayed at all, for exactly the same reason they shouldn't have fallen into his thrall: he's just a politician, being a politician. Which is why he will be re-elected.
Alas, I can't ask you to credit me for my emotional distance and pragmatism, because at exactly the same moment Obama was seducing 69.5 million voters, another iconic figure was -- out of all common sense and experience -- capturing my own heart.
I refer, of course, to Flo -- the Progressive insurance lady. On the strength of her larger-than-life personality and a ginormous media spend, she became an overnight advertising icon in 2008 in her role as enthusiastic sales clerk at a Progressive “store.”
It was love at first sight for me.
Flo, played by actress Stephanie Courtney, was a sort of postmodern Josephine the Plumber. (Played by former child star Jane Withers, Josephine was also extremely, extremely devoted to her advertised brand, but -- like most other advertising of the day -- absent even a whiff of irony. Withers clung to the 1930s Hal Roach style of juvenile overacting, and her mannerisms came right out of an Our Gang comedy. Yet she was playing it straight.)
Flo was irresistible because her over-the-topness was part of the joke. It was just fun to watch a character so delighted to be selling a product she so wholeheartedly believed in, although she seemed like a loon doing it. Sweet. Endearing. Funny. That year she was runner-up in my Bobby Awards for best actress in a TV spot, and the next year she won the top prize -- because that sweetness, charm, humor and adorableness had a halo effect on the brand.
She soooo loved Progressive -- how could you not? You liked them for bringing us Flo, and you liked them because Flo was so proud to represent them. This was extraordinary on two counts. First, it's not as though Flo was your cousin or your friend; she was pretend, and therefore not the most credible source. Secondly, Progressive is an insurance company.
A sweet, endearing, funny insurance company?
Not possible. And yet…
To this day, I find myself veering toward BP stations because of their earth-friendly green and yellow sunflower logo -- until I recover my senses and remember that BP is repulsive. So too did I see Flo, and the strangely heavenly retail store she worked in, and feel good feelings about Progressive. In spite of my native skepticism. In spite of my experience. In spite of my gimlet-eyed professional distance. They won me over.
And now, like a big chunk of the "Yes We Can" cult, I feel betrayed. Because Progressive has revealed itself to be…an insurance company.
The spell was broken two weeks ago when comedian Matt Fisher blogged the wrenching story of his sister, Katie, a Progressive policyholder who had been killed in an automobile accident when another driver ran a light and hit her car broadside. He was uninsured, leaving it for Progressive to pay the claim under the underinsured-driver provision of Katie's policy. But rather than pay, Progressive went to court on behalf of the other driver. What followed was Matt Fisher's blog post, and what followed that was a social-media shitstorm.
Progressive quickly settled with the Fishers, but not before a mass exodus of customers and an astonishing backlash against…Flo.
14 Aug @iamledgin The worst Progressive commercial is the one where Flo kills that guy's sister.
14 Aug @EricDSnider I happen to know that Flo chick is also Progressive's CEO, so if you see her, punch her in the face.
13 Aug @Stepto In other news @progressive's behavior has finally cured me of my attraction to Flo.
13 Aug @NickadooLA I wasn't surprised to hear Progressive's Flo killed all those people.
In those two weeks, Flo -- who has been ubiquitous for four years -- has vanished from the airwaves. Various press reports say she is unlikely to reappear.
There are two lessons here. One is that we are now in the Relationship Era, and no amount of advertising -- not even the $1 billion-plus spent on Flo -- can camouflage a brand’s true nature. The second lesson is to take care whom you allow yourself to become smitten with, whether Barack Obama, Lance Armstrong or an exuberant spokescharacter in a retro hairdo.
Because it’s hard to mend a broken heart.