One needn’t eat Tostitos Hint of Lime Flavored Triangles to survive; advertising’s object is to muddle this truth. Of course, Hint of Lime Flavored Triangles have the advantage of being food, which humans do need to survive. Many commodities necessitated by modern life lack this selling point. Insurance, for example, is not only inedible but intangible. It is a resource that customers hope never to need, a product that functions somewhat like a tax on fear. The average person cannot identify which qualities, if any, distinguish one company’s insurance from another’s. For these reasons and more, selling insurance is tricksy business.
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In 2022, nearly half the active property- and casualty-insurance premiums in the United States and Canada were sold by just 11 companies. Increasingly, insurance corporations attract business not by building trust between their customers and local agents, but by successfully ascribing positive characteristics to the fictional characters who anthropomorphize the companies and products in ads. The first to arrive at the vigorous insurance-brand-character orgy was a gecko, created in 1999 to teach people how to pronounce the acronymic name of the Government Employees Insurance Company. (Conceived as a single spot, Geico’s Gecko campaign was extended the year a commercial-actors’ strike prohibited live humans from filming ads.) It has since been joined by the Aflac duck, Liberty Mutual’s LiMu Emu, Professor Burke (J.K. Simmons) from Farmer’s (bumbadumbumbumbumbum), Jake from State Farm (from State Farm) and Mayhem from Allstate.
But all of these are subordinate to a moderately whimsical employee-character, who has been persuading Americans to purchase insurance (or in some commercials, reminding them that they already have), since the twilight of the George W. Bush administration: Flo from Progressive.
According to Ad Age, in 2022 the Progressive Corporation spent more than $2 billion on advertising in the United States, pouring more money into the effort than McDonald’s, Toyota or Coca-Cola. (The insurance industry’s total annual media-ad spending is estimated to be just shy of $11 billion — more than was spent by all the top beer brands combined.) Progressive’s C-suite could justify the elaborate outlay as follows: A decade and a half ago, their executive ancestors stumbled upon advertising gold, in the form of a story that Americans could bear to be told over and over again — so far, forever. It is an interminable folk tale about buying insurance, propelled by the charisma, or connoted soothing attentiveness, or gently grating peskiness, or something, of Flo, its central character.
Flo debuted in 2008, working the checkout of an eldritch white store uncannily devoid of shadows or edges. The original idea behind these ads, internally called the “Superstore” campaign, was to transform insurance from something people had to pay for into something people got to shop for. (In early ads, the store’s shelves were lined with packages of insurance — cornflakes boxes and tomato cans covered with Progressive branding.) In “Behind the Apron: The Story of Flo,” a Progressive-produced video, a company executive recalls that before “Superstore,” when asked to list car-insurance companies they had heard of, even Progressive’s own customers failed to name it. The extent to which Flo is responsible for the company’s subsequent surge in popularity is impossible to quantify; the character is so inextricably linked with the brand that the two can no longer be separated for measurement. If it could be represented photographically, though, the relationship would look something like the inverse of the famous image from the psychologist Harry Harlow’s experiment, in which a baby rhesus monkey cleaves to a wooden “mother” — with the insensate entity fiercely clinging to the flesh-and-blood woman.
Courtney’s debut in 2008.
A pair of Flo’s blue high-tops are displayed at Progressive headquarters in Ohio. In the company’s online store, her likeness, in varying degrees of abstraction, adorns a lunch box, an air freshener, a puzzle, a pin, a dog toy, a bobblehead, a chia pet and the faces of multiple dolls of other nations (a Japanese kokeshi and a family of Russian matryoshkas). The only Flo paraphernalia that does not feature her visage subsumes the buyer into her likeness: the “Flo Costume,” with apron, name tag, pin, headband and chestnut-brown wig ($24.99; worn two Halloweens ago by Joe Jonas). The year the ads premiered, the company’s chief marketing officer, Remi Kent, told me, Progressive’s stock price was under $15. It recently closed at $157.67. “While I can’t give Flo all of the credit,” Kent said, “I think she has really become synonymous with the brand.”
In fact, the human face, voice and bearing that constitute “Flo” are associated far more strongly with Progressive than with the 53-year-old woman who provides them: Stephanie Courtney. Courtney did not intend to sell insurance. She meant to star on Broadway and then, following wish revision, to support herself as a comedic actress. Instead, she has starred in the same role for 15 years and counting, becoming in the process a character recognizable to nearly every American — a feat so rare her peers in this category are mostly cartoon animals. Since appearing in the first Flo spot in January 2008, Courtney has never been absent from American TV, rematerializing incessantly in the same sugar-white apron and hoar-frost-white polo shirt and cocaine-white trousers that constitute the character’s unvarying wardrobe. It’s true that her career did not launch until she was 38; and most of her audience could not tell you her name or anything about her; and many of the attendees of the Groundlings improv show in Los Angeles, in which she still performs weekly, probably do not recognize her — set all that aside, though, and Stephanie Courtney is one of the most successful actors in the world.
I found Courtney in head-to-toe black at the restaurant in Studio City where we had arranged to meet — a photo negative of Flo on a suede sofa. Her purse immediately caught my eye: It appeared to be an emerald green handbag version of the $388 “bubble clutch” made by Cult Gaia, the trendy label whose fanciful purses double as objets d’art. Courtney handed it to me while rattling off tips for extending the shelf life of fresh eggs. It was a plastic carrying case for eggs, it turned out — eggs she had brought me from her six backyard hens. “Did you think it was a purse?” she asked merrily.
We were led to a small outdoor table abutting an immense dormant fire pit. “When they turn this on,” Courtney said in a conspiratorial whisper, setting her (actual) handbag upon its concrete ledge, “it’s going to be amazing to see this bag catch on fire.” (Indeed, it would prove exciting when, two and a half hours later, flames leaped out of the pit with no warning; Courtney rescued her pocketbook just before it was engulfed.) Over iced tap water, Courtney told me about the early days of her acting career, a carousel of enthusiastic rejection — “Everyone in New York is like: ‘You’re great! No.’” — subsidized by catering work. In 1998, she moved to Los Angeles and booked her first commercial: a 1999 Bud Light Super Bowl ad.
“I was the girl in the back going like this,” Courtney said, making a face that a girl in the back might make as two guys in the checkout line, short on cash, debated whether to purchase toilet paper or Bud Light. To her eye, the Bud Light toilet-paper spot was suffused with a timeless quality — one that guaranteed it would “play forever,” she told herself, using the money it earned her to buy UGGs. It turned out to play closer to a month. This was significant because of how big broadcast commercials tend to pay: Actors receive one sum for their day of work on set and residuals in 13-week cycles as long as it plays thereafter.
Commercial work was intended to tide Courtney over until her comedy career took off. At open mics, she performed alongside ascendant comedians like Tig Notaro, Maria Bamford and Retta. After years of classes, she was promoted to the upper echelons of the Groundlings improv troupe, a comedy mint that has pressed stars like Lisa Kudrow, Paul Reubens and Melissa McCarthy into wide circulation but is best known for stacking the cast of “Saturday Night Live” with performers who are not Stephanie Courtney. “S.N.L.” would come to watch Groundlings performances and, as Courtney recalled to me, “They were like, ‘Stop sending her stuff in.’ Like, ‘We’re not interested.’”
“I remember feeling so terrible,” Courtney said. “And just embarrassed. Like a weird shame. Like, ‘I shouldn’t even walk around.’” It wasn’t as if “S.N.L.” had declared a moratorium on Groundlings hires. The show signed her friend Kristen from class — better known from 2005 to 2012 as “ ‘Saturday Night Live’ star Kristen Wiig.”
Wiig described Courtney to me as “one of the funniest people I’ve ever known in my life” — supernaturally gifted at instantaneously inventing new characters; “a master improviser”; “effortless.” She remembered a sketch in which Courtney played an excited stand-up waiting in the wings, listening to a prolonged, fawning introduction before walking onstage to begin her set. “And as soon as she gets out, she falls really hard on her face,” Wiig said, laughing. “Just starts moaning and crying. And that was the sketch.”
The problem in the early 2000s was that people didn’t love Courtney in a way that could be reliably monetized. She auditioned for the role of Joan on “Mad Men,” and the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, loved her, but not for Joan — for a character named Marge, a switchboard operator, with whom other characters had almost no interaction.
“I was so stinkin’ broke,” Courtney said. Her car wouldn’t go in reverse, but the repair cost something like $2,500, so she just drove it forward. This complicated traveling between auditions, but she had a method. She would pull into a spot, roll down her windows and go inside. When she returned, she would give another performance: that of a woman discovering that her car would not start. “ ‘Oh, no!’” she would exclaim. “ ‘Oh, shoot! Oh, no! My car won’t start!’ And then I’d flag down someone and be like: ‘Oh, I have an idea! What if I put it in neutral, and you pushed it?’” People love being generous — someone always helped that poor woman. “And I’d go to the next one and do the whole thing all over again.” This act Courtney described as “much better than whatever I did” at the actual auditions, which didn’t lead to much.
By 2007, Courtney’s life was all on credit cards, and her age was a number almost unheard-of in scenic Southern California. Even the commercial gigs were slowing when, that winter, she was cast in an ad for an insurance company, as a cashier. She arrived at 5:30 the morning of the shoot to have bangs cut into her hair (“I didn’t recognize myself”) and texted a photo of the finished look from her flip phone to the guy she was dating (now her husband, a lighting designer at the Groundlings theater). The first script ended with a customer, upon realizing the quality of deal he was receiving, saying, “Wow,” to which the cashier (name tag: “Flo”) was instructed only to have a funny reaction. Courtney’s knee-jerk response was to scream, “Wow!” back. “I say it louder,” she added under her breath. Years of Groundlings tuition paid off in this instant. Progressive loved the ad-lib.
Within a couple of months of shooting the first ads, Courtney was asked to film more. The work eventually became so steady that she quit her day jobs. “I just remember getting the check for the year — which, never, ever in my life … ” she trailed off. The relief in her voice sounded as fresh as if this had only just happened. “I owed my manager money,” she said. “I owed family members money.” Her efforts to write sketches at home were constantly being interrupted by debt collectors. “And then I got that money, and I was just like: Here! Here! Here!” She mimed handing it out. “Just — here! — just get out of my life.”
About three years into the ads, Courtney’s finances were evolving so rapidly that her manager advised her to get a business manager. “Which I did,” she said. “And it is the advice I give to any other person who is like: ‘I have a campaign. What do I do?’” It is the advice she gave to Kevin Miles when he came to her home to chat over lunch about becoming Jake from State Farm. (She also knows “Doug,” the guy in the Liberty Mutual emu commercials.)
In the absent glow of the patio’s still-dormant fire pit, Courtney and I considered the dinner menu, which included a small quantity of caviar costing a sum of American dollars ominously, discreetly, vaguely, alarmingly, irresistibly and euphemistically specified as “market price.” Hours earlier, my supervisor had told me pre-emptively — and demonically — that I was not to order and expense the market-price caviar. Somehow, Courtney learned of this act of oppression, probably when I brought it up to her immediately upon being seated for dinner. To this, Courtney said, “I love caviar,” and added that my boss “can’t tell [her] what [she] can have,” because she doesn’t “answer to” him, “goddamn it.” She charged the caviar to her own personal credit card and encouraged me to eat it with her — even as I explained (weakly, for one second) that this is not allowed (lock me up!).
Subsequently pinning down the exact hows and whys of my consuming a profile subject’s forbidden caviar took either several lively discussions with my supervisor (my guess) or about “1.5 hours” of “company time” (his calculation). In his opinion, this act could be seen as at odds with my employer’s policy precluding reporters from accepting favors and gifts from their subjects — the worry being that I might feel obligated to repay Courtney for caviar by describing her favorably in this article. Let me be clear: If the kind of person who purchases caviar and offers to share it with a dining companion who has been tyrannically deprived of it sounds like someone you would not like, you would hate Stephanie Courtney. In any event, to bring this interaction into line with company policy, we later reimbursed her for the full price of the caviar ($85 plus tip), so now she is, technically, indebted to me.
Despite her face being central to the ad campaign, Courtney told me at dinner (where we otherwise dined with marvelous economy) that she is seldom recognized — “maybe once a month,” she estimated. She makes few in-person character appearances. “You might like Flo,” she said, “but do you want to deal with her now, against your will?” About a year into the campaign, she visited a friend who had informed her son that Flo would be stopping by. Courtney arrived as herself — no costume — but just the idea that the TV lady was suddenly in his home sent the child “sobbing” into his room. “It’s almost like Santa Claus getting in your face,” Courtney said. “And it’s like: ‘Ain’t no gifts! There’s no upside!’”
She learned early that people enjoy spotting Flo in real life only if they realize who she is on their own. If, for instance, her mother-in-law excitedly informs a stranger that she is Flo, they do not like it. “They really don’t,” she said.
According to Progressive, 99 percent of consumers — defined by Remi Kent as “everyone out there that has the potential to buy insurance from us” — “know Flo.” Kent told me that the character scores high on likability “not only with the general market” but also with “the Black community” and “the Hispanic community.” For years, Sean McBride, the chief creative officer of the Arnold Worldwide advertising agency (whose copywriters have written more than 200 TV spots for the “Superstore” campaign), received daily emails indicating that ads featuring Flo were “very, very directly tied to people calling” Progressive to inquire about switching insurance.
Jumbling the puzzle of Flo’s likability, according to Cait Lamberton, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School, is the possibility that what audiences enjoyed about Flo in 2008 is not what they enjoy — or think they enjoy — about her in 2023. It could be that American brains, exposed to so many years of this ad campaign, now confuse the “ease of processing” Flo content (a quality reinforced through repeated exposure) with actually liking it. Research shows, Lamberton said, that familiarity can overpower distaste.
“Even if people find her annoying, they don’t find her objectionable,” Lamberton said. In fact, even people who don’t like Flo do like Flo, because any character trait they cite as a reason for disliking her “reflects that there’s a very strong memory trace.” For advertisers, a character that stimulates mild irritation with every appearance is preferable to one that is innocuous, so long as the benign annoyance does not mutate into a strong negative association. Complaining about something trivial, Lamberton said, “is a very comforting experience.”
One possible secret to Flo’s appeal, suggested Lamberton, is that her appearance “both conforms to and pokes fun at gender stereotypes, because she’s a little bit exaggerated. She looks a little bit like a quirky Snow White.” The lightly retro hairdo may be “comforting” to people for whom feminine bouffants recall a halcyon social era; it can also be read as a wry visual gag juxtaposed against Flo’s sexless, shapeless uniform.
What makes the “Superstore” campaign not just notable but virtuosic is its freakish longevity. To stave off what Lamberton called the “wear out” phase — when content becomes so familiar it is no longer effective — Arnold is perpetually altering the ads just enough to keep them novel. It has released “Superstore” spots shot in the style of a fuzzy 1970s after-school special, a 1990s sitcom and a “TMZ on TV”-style paparazzi show. It has introduced co-workers (“the squad”) not to supplant Flo but to further develop her character. (She can interact with her colleagues more brusquely than with customers.) Courtney has portrayed several members of Flo’s extended family, including her grandfather. If we can think of the campaign as a sentient being seeking to prolong its survival, its mission is to generate ceaseless low-grade curiosity about the familiar character of Flo. (“Is this a new ad?” constitutes sufficient interest.)
McBride compared Flo’s effect on insurance advertising to the influence of “Iron Man” on cinema. Robert Downey Jr. is “so incredibly charming, fast-talking, but sort of self-effacing — whatever that is — and then every Marvel movie became that,” he said. “This is kind of the junior version of that.” Lamberton placed the campaign in the vanguard of now-ubiquitous trends like brand characters instantiating abstract concepts, and commercials that function as ersatz sitcoms with years of story lines. Flo’s surreal cheer, and the extent to which her enthusiasm for competitively priced insurance veers into pathological obsession, are winks at an old-fashioned idea of advertising; the implication, through exaggeration, is that today’s audiences are too sophisticated to be swayed by an unrealistic pitchman. Lamberton refers to this self-conscious style, endemic in the current proliferation of “funny” insurance commercials, as “ironic advertising” — ads that “recognize they are a little bit ridiculous.”
When I told Remi Kent about online speculation that Progressive pays Courtney $1 million per year to star in commercials, Kent smiled silently at me for a few seconds without moving the muscles of her face one millimeter, like a buffering video of herself. It was only when I declared my own guess for Courtney’s annual salary — a figure much higher than $1 million — that she stopped buffering (but kept smiling). “Well,” Kent said, “that’s a wide range, isn’t it?”
The second guess I put to Kent was a number hazarded by Phil Cassese, a commercial agent at Stewart Talent. Cassese’s clients have appeared in ads for brands like Olive Garden and Verizon. (One, a young redhead, served as the new face of Wendy’s after its 2012 rebrand.) By his estimation, the star of a “splashy campaign,” along the lines of “Superstore,” might reasonably expect to hit the $1 million mark after four or five years — around the time of the Cronut and “Blurred Lines,” in Courtney’s case. Fifteen years in, Cassese said, an annual figure “like $10 million” would be “in the fair ballpark.”
You know how sometimes, in a commercial, there is a scene that takes place in a house? How many houses do you suppose the commercial auteurs need to borrow to pull that off? “Zero — that’s what movie magic is for”? Perhaps, “One”? In fact, on a gray morning this past spring, the people who make the Progressive commercials commandeered a whole block of houses, to shoot scenes inside one family’s appealingly nondescript home. “There are specific neighborhoods in L.A. that don’t look like L.A.,” Sean McBride told me. “If you start paying attention,” he said, you will notice the same homes reused “constantly.”
To the tree-lined block, the “Superstore” team had trucked a quantity of equipment sufficient to stage a three-hour Beyoncé concert on the moon. There were lights, cameras, actors’ gleaming trailers and portable heaters — it was, after all, 62 degrees outside — but most of the equipment just looked like … equipment? Like: sturdy black tubs with lids, crates, clamps, poles, spaghetti heaps of power cords, racks of racks, extra-large folded-up things, rectangles and tubular items. Some of this arsenal had been used to transform the living room of one house into a Black person’s living room. Perhaps it already was one — but because regular people don’t naturally style their dwellings in commercially approved ways (literally, a representative from Progressive HQ must walk through the set and approve every single item that will appear on camera), because they have things like artwork (stupid), their own furniture (ugly), family photos (who is that?!) and Rubik’s cubes (forbidden, because Rubik’s Cubes® are trademarked), all the aforementioned must be temporarily disappeared and replaced with narratively appropriate, legally generic this and that. If cars are present, their manufacturer logos are covered with abstract shapes of similar dimensions, their license plates, upon inspection, cursively reading not “California” but “Drive Safely.” This obfuscation process is called “Greeking,” as in, “It’s all Greek to me” (as in, “I can’t tell what that says, but it definitely doesn’t say Kia Optima, for legal reasons”).
If my visit to the “Superstore” set can be taken as representative, being closely involved with the production of popular TV commercials for large national brands is the best possible outcome for a human life. The scale and complexity of the operation at the center of Courtney’s work is eye-popping. Every fleeting football-game-interrupting Progressive ad is the product of hours of labor from more than a hundred people. On set, a cat wrangler stood just out of frame, ready to pounce with a backup cat if the primary cat failed. Trays of lickerish delights — crostini with prosciutto, cups of ethereal parfait — were discreetly proffered, at frequent intervals, to people scrutinizing monitors. Every lens, light and politely anxious face was turned heliotropically toward Courtney, in a rented living room, trying to remember, while delivering her line, that Progressive was offering deals “for new parents” rather than “to new parents” — a possibly meaningful distinction. This wasn’t a critically acclaimed Hulu series; there was actually a lot riding on this. It needed to be the same, but slightly different, and every bit as successful as the 200 that had come before it, so that everyone would be asked to return to this job — not necessarily, perhaps not exactly, the job of their dreams, but a better job than anyone could ever hope for, bolstered by friendly faces and fantastic catering and a sumptuous corporate budget — in perpetuity.
Many entertainers progress from commercial work (young Leonardo DiCaprio for Bubble Yum) to critical acclaim; some later double back to endorsement work to cash in on their renown (less-young Leonardo DiCaprio for the Guangdong OPPO Mobile Telecommunications Corporation). Few, in either stage, find their likenesses permanently welded to a multibillion-dollar company. Courtney continued auditioning for other ads even after landing Progressive, but suspected that even casting directors who liked Stephanie Courtney refused to hire Flo. She could have avoided what has become an indelible association by abandoning the role early on. But she almost certainly could not have been as successful as an actor had she not played Flo for 15 years; few actors are.
Yet Courtney cannot but envy some of her peers, flourishing from projects they have written themselves. “I’m as competitive or hard on myself or ‘compare and despair’ as anybody,” she said. She feels pressure — self-inflicted — to pursue a creative endeavor that is solely hers. “I am writing something just for mys — I shouldn’t even say this, but I’m writing something for myself,” she said. It’s a comedic script, set in a high school, like the one where her father worked. “I don’t even think I should waste my time trying to pitch it to anybody,” Courtney told me. “Because I understand that it would be received politely. It would be a great meeting. We’d have water.” But, no matter how funny she is in real life, she knows people are not clamoring to hear more from the Progressive lady about her ideas for feature-length comedy films. If she ever did make a go of it, “I would probably finance it,” she said. “I will probably take my kid’s college money.”
There are moments when Courtney’s everyday is disrupted by a flashing recollection of her good fortune. A while ago, she and her husband were discussing possible home improvements — some tedious projects they should get around to. “I remember thinking,” she said, “in an annoyed tone, Well, how can life be better than it is now?!” The idea made them laugh. “It’s worth more than money,” Courtney said, to feel like you have “enough.”
But other things might be worth more than money, too — things like knowing you have told a story that inspired your fellow man to contemplate facets of life beyond switching insurance carriers. Is there a tasteful limit to how many things worth more than money a person should attempt to acquire?
“Who has a better job than you?” I asked.
“On that set?” Courtney asked.
“In the world.”
“There are times when I ask myself that,” Courtney said. “The miserable me who didn’t get to audition for ‘S.N.L.’ never would have known,” she said, how good life could be when she was denied what she wanted. “I hope that’s coming through,” she said. “I’m screaming it in your face.”
What sane person would not make the most extreme version of this trade — tabling any and all creative aspirations, possibly forever, in exchange for free prosciutto; testing well with the general market, the Black and the Hispanic communities; delighted co-workers and employers; more than four million likes on Facebook; and, though tempered with the constant threat of being rendered obsolete by unseen corporate machinations, the peace of having “enough”? Do we deny ourselves the pleasure of happiness by conceiving of it as something necessarily total, connoting maximum satisfaction in every arena? For anyone with any agency over his or her life, existence takes the form of perpetual bartering. Perhaps we waive the freedom of endless, aimless travel for the safety of returning to a home. Perhaps willingly capping our creative potential secures access to a reliable paycheck. Forfeiting one thing for the promise of something else later is a sophisticated human idea. Our understanding of this concept enables us to sell one another insurance.
Caity Weaver is a staff writer at the magazine. She has written about trying to find Tom Cruise, going on a package trip for youngish people and spending time in the “quietest place on Earth.” Sinna Nasseri is a first-generation American based in Los Angeles. He learned to take photographs on the streets of New York City after leaving a career as a lawyer.