Progressive Never Gets It Right

I know I’ve talked about Progressive Insurance before, but I love beating a dead horse—this one, anyway.

In the past, I spoke about TV ads for Charter Communications’ Spectrum and how well they were designed and scripted. Their “monster” series was the freshest I’d seen in years, and in the article I posted, I referred to a copycat ad from Progressive using the same scenario (monster under the child’s bed).

Well here we are, boys and girls, in the fall of 2018 and Progressive is still at it. They see something they like and admire. Then they copy it. Not an original bone in their collective bodies, whoever the creatives are at Arnold Worldwide.

The left visual is from the latest in a series from Geico. And I’ve written about this series which started with the “zen gardening” spot. This series of ads is original and quirky and is among the best ad efforts in recent memory. The thinking is fresh and leaves the viewer wanting to see it again and again, if only to figure whom the ads are for—which is OK. They’ve gathered your attention with your first viewing and made you wonder; after that, they have you once you see it’s Geico.

That’s the thing about television. The medium isn’t like print or the web. Television advertisers know that they buy ad space that allows repeated commercial air times, and that in turn allows them to capture your attention. They can sidestep the old advertising adage about making sure the consumer gets it right the first time to avoid confusion.

I remember a series of ads that ran in a magazine decades ago depicting a brand of alcoholic beverage. They’d run a teaser on one page of the publication one week, then another the next week, and finally the last ad in the third week which would then reveal everything you needed to know about it. Not a very good ad campaign as it turned out: it left readers disinterested by the second week.

But TV ads are ubiquitous and run often enough that you can’t miss them, and if they’re interesting enough—such as the Geico series—we actually want to see them again. Which is the best thing an advertiser can hope for.

Which is what Progressive can only dream about. With characters like Flo and Jamie, viewers get irritated and tired of bad ad ideas and then recognize plagiarism when they see it.

In the Geico spot at left, the series has already laid the groundwork with careful scripting and one-time characters for each spot. So it’s easy to accept the format knowing we’ll see a new entry each time. It’s soft sell wrapped in a quirky setting.

With the spot at right, Progressive not only tries too hard with the offbeat premise, they feel they need to explain the situation with characters (including the long tiresome Flo) who are watching the scene from the background. This is hard sell unwrapped as counterfeit.

And this is the real difference: Geico doesn’t need to explain anything, knowing that viewers are sophisticated enough to pick up the idea behind the absurdity of the theme, while Progressive doesn’t give the viewing audience credit for that.

Progressive is smart enough to know what works, but only after they see their competitor’s ads. In trying to top them, it fails miserably.

 

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Talking Boxes

I sometimes wonder at the ad world where we have animated objects speaking to us either directly or indirectly, as though a talking dummy or marionette has our complete attention. The idea has me thinking of Chuck and Bob from the 1970’s TV comedy, Soap. In that show, Jay Johnson plays Chuck, a ventriloquist, whose dummy, Bob, has the other characters befuddled with his sharp wit. The main actors find themselves (especially Billy Crystal) talking directly to the dummy.

And I think we are no more intelligent than those actors in that show listening to Bob. At least, some of the time.

There are a few more examples of talking boxes than the ones shown above, but these are the most prominent. I’m sure you’ve seen the Cologuard commercials. Here we have what appears to be the actual product kit—or at least a facsimile of one—speaking directly to us about the rather private process of submitting a sample for the screening of colon cancer. The box is personified by an unknown actor whose voice has a muted, understated quality suited well to the product.

The ad series was developed by Precisioneffect, whose nickname for the kit is “little CG”. A company called Exact Sciences produces the screening product, and according to their marketing director, the aim is to bring attention to a personal choice for addressing an important issue in a less confrontational way.

I’ve seen perhaps three different Cologuard spots. Each has a soft demeanor, and is instructional. So we listen.

On the other hand, the Progressive Insurance talking box is another story. Here we have what so far appears to be a series of around a dozen spots featuring this smarmy, conceited box which in a series of circumstances speaks about his ennui, his heartfelt travels around the world, his travails getting through airport security, and even his trouble finding speaking engagements while addressing elementary grade students at “career day”.

I have to say that this box is well-designed, and the facial expressions are dead-on, especially that wide angular mouth that spouts off anything the brain behind it wants you to hear.

The ads for Progressive are done by Arnold, the big ad agency known for many other TV commercials, including Jack Daniels and Ocean Spray. Here the box is personified by Chris Parnell, the comedian from SNL and 30 Rock, whose voice is highly suited for over-reaching personalities. He’s one of the best in television.

Nothing against Parnell, but only a few of the ads are funny and after several viewings they get boring and tiresome. Which is a shame because the production is well done mixing animation with real-life actors. Plus, we have no idea what the box is supposed to represent. One source I came across tells us the box is supposed to be the Progressive Insurance policy. (We’d seen scores of them on shelves behind Flo’s desk in previous commercials, and even then wondered if those were representing case studies as in a law library, but knowing how wacky Flo can be, throw that thought away.)

Which brings up another thought: Progressive seems to want to outdo itself buy promoting with Flo and her “working” cohorts and also with this goofy talking box. Do you feel the two series are competing with each other? Or do you feel that it can work, such as in the Geico series (caveman versus the gecko)?

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