Character Building

By Eric Butterman Posted on May 01, 2014

What gets a TV show to air isn’t necessarily what keeps it there. While a premise may initially grab you, it requires creativity beyond a one-note story. The same can be said for a recurring advertising character. The success of Flo from Progressive Insurance is one case study to follow.
Sean McBride, a group creative director for Arnold Worldwide, was on the campaign within the first 10 Flo ads. “Part of the reason it’s done well is because the client understood that you can’t just stick with the exact same thing because it’s working—because soon it won’t be,” he says.
In 2008, Quirky and perky Flo was introduced simply as a way to explain shopping for insurance online, making it feel like a grocery store, he says. Even though Flo was a hit with viewers, writers knew you couldn’t just have her go it alone. “We had recurring characters who helped her and ‘took the pressure off her,’” McBride says. “There has been a de facto sidekick Jamie, a robot that looks like her (Flobot) and also a rival insurance company that provides tension. We didn’t need these characters every time, but, like a TV show, they could support her.”
They also made sure to not take Flo too far away from her character. “It’s a balance,” he says. “You want something that’s familiar so you feel you’re in on it…but it also has to stretch.” An example would be the scene of a drenched Flo walking toward a man in the rain, like two lovers out of The Notebook.
Man: I knew you’d come.
Flo: Like I could stay away.
Man: You know I can’t do this without you.
Flo: You’ll never have to.
And, it’s only a matter of time before she…says she’ll get him a rental car. In the end, she still “remembers” to be Flo.
McBride says patience has also been vital with her character’s storyline. “We didn’t feel the need to quickly get her married or have a baby…” he says. “You don’t want anything that feels forced.”
The final key for McBride when it comes to Flo’s success and advice for anyone who wants similar results with their character? Always remember the casting. “The actress, Stephanie Courtney, takes her improvisation to what’s written and does incredible things with it…” he says. “It’s important to find someone who can really bring something to the role.”


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