How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?

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.         





6 comments about "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?".
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  1. James Boldebook from CBC, August 27, 2012 at 11:14 a.m.

    Great post and comment Bob. If there is anyone out there still 'in love' with BHO, they owe it to themselves to see Dinesh Dsouza's "2016". What an eye opener.

    funny you mentioned BP. I feel the same way about Citgo. I won't go near a citgo since the communist dictator of that Country spoused his evil dictum on American soil. I would call AAA for gas if I ran out in front of a Citgo.

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, August 27, 2012 at 11:26 a.m.

    This gets my vote for Best Rationalization for Voting Twice for an Ineffective Politician. We can wait until November for the "envelope, please?"

  3. Greg Ippolito from IMA, August 27, 2012 at 11:34 a.m.

    The irony here — that you obscured the real point of your op-ed (to dump on Obama) with your Flo/Progressive abstraction, the same way the Twittersphere “blamed” Flo (in the abstract) as a passive-aggressive means of criticizing Progressive The Company — is lost on no one. People aren’t that dumb, Bob.

  4. Neal Burns from University of Texas at Austin, August 27, 2012 at 2:21 p.m.

    It is charming to think – even for a moment – that Bob Garfield - the conscience and voice of advertising criticism - has just discovered that we all have feet of clay. It is a characteristic of our species – just as is the characteristic of mending our broken hearts. The access to corruption that power provides is ubiquitous – presidents, business leaders, presidential candidates, beloved athletes, entertainment stars and just plain folks stumble and fall – some very noisily. And yet we produce poetry, architecture, music, literature and overall are a species to be cherished. The love affair with the other is poignant and the interest and affection will – we believe at the time –last forever. We break up and sometimes forgive and forget – and at other times simply replace. Nike and off shore child labor ? Once angry, disappointed and yet just bought my umpteenth pair. The Justin Long Mac spots ? Loved them once ? Deutsch’s Darth Vader kid in the VW spot won my heart and I was again in love. Maybe it’s just me.

  5. Ed Fitzelle from Info Pub Advisors, August 27, 2012 at 4:14 p.m.

    One of the most important lessons I learned in business school from a guy who had been an agency was this: don't use advertising to tell people you are something you aren't. Don't let the client do that either. You have to protect them from themselves. That's how you provide real service to a client. All the money you spend will be a complete waste. What happened? Oh and by the way, I'm not all that concerned I can just get into my Subaru to find the love I need, yeah right.

  6. Henry Harteveldt from Atmosphere Research Group, August 27, 2012 at 8:27 p.m.

    "Flo" is on Progressive's home page. I believe I saw a Progressive spot featuring "Flo" Sunday afternoon/evening (Aug.26), though I don't recall if the spot was local (I am in San Francisco) or national.

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