The Spot:Two guys walk into a store that sells insurance services from Progressive. The first guy says he needs to save some money on his auto insurance—things have gotten so dire that he was forced to sell his watch to the other guy. After the clerk finds a lower coverage rate, she suggests that the first guy will now be able to buy his watch back. “Not for sale,” says the second guy. “That’s cold,” says the clerk.
Are they or aren’t they? There’s been chatter on the Web, and in YouTube comments, about whether the two guys in this Progressive commercial are supposed to be a couple. The evidence is thin but as best I can tell consists of the following elements:
- The tall guy’s speech and mannerisms seem to be tripping a lot of folks’ gaydar.
- Something in the way the men look at each other—close together, face-to-face—suggests they’re not just hetero buddies.
- When the clerk asks if money’s been tight, she looks back and forth between the two guys as though she’s assuming they’re a joint entity.
- The clincher: The shorter guy appears to be wearing a rainbow T-shirt beneath his blazer.
Ads featuring gay characters are exceedingly rare, bordering on nonexistent, when it comes to mainstream network television. (It may be indicative that GLAAD’s Commercial Closet, a repository of gay-themed ads, includes several spots that are merely “gay vague”—for instance, this Bud ad in which a guy rehearses his marriage proposal while kneeling before a male friend.) Perhaps this Progressive ad was designed to split the difference: subtly winking at the gay community while making no definitive statement on the characters’ sexuality.
It’s worth remembering that Progressive has a famously nontraditional corporate culture. The company maintains a vast collection of modern art, meant to inspire creativity in its work force. Former CEO and current Chairman Peter Lewis is a noted eccentric who’s advocated for looser marijuana laws and has been busted for pot possession. As giant insurance companies go, Progressive does seem awfully hip and … progressive.
They’ve even done explicitly gay-themed ad campaigns in the past—albeit not on TV. One print ad that ran in gay publications showed a sepia-toned photo of two men, along with a caption: “Generations later, this portrait reached the mantel.” Progressive also boasts on its Web site that it received a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.
Clues were mounting. I had to settle the question once and for all. So I asked Progressive’s chief marketing officer, Larry Bloomenkranz, if the television ad was intended to have a gay vibe.
Short answer: It wasn’t.
“A Joey and Chandler dynamic was the archetype,” says Bloomenkranz, referring to the two (putatively straight) male pals from the sitcom Friends. “The ad was not written specifically to be gay. But if people interpret it that way, it’s fine with us.”
In fact, according to Bloomenkranz, lots of people have interpreted it that way. After the ad began airing earlier this year, Progressive received more than 100 e-mails asking about the characters’ sexual orientation. Bloomenkranz recognized an opportunity and started running the ad on Logo, a cable network that targets gay and lesbian viewers. “Seven percent of households in the United States are headed by gays and lesbians,” says Bloomenkranz. “That’s not insignificant.”
Progressive also began running a second ad on Logo that shows a female customer talking to the female clerk. Again, the ad wasn’t written with Logo’s demographic in mind. “There’s nothing particularly gay or straight about it,” says Bloomenkranz. But there’s a vaguely flirtatious flavor to the women’s interaction—if you squint hard enough and wish it were so.
Grade: B. Intentional or not, the ad with the two guys successfully walks the tightrope between gay and straight. Car insurance, more than most products, must appeal to every kind of person—for the simple reason that almost all of us drive. As an aside: I’ve always had a soft spot for “Flo,” the cute Progressive salesclerk with the ever-present headband and bright red lipstick. She’s apparently a minor sex symbol in her own right, though the actress who plays her can’t quite understand why. “I don’t know what it is,” she once said in an interview. “The way I play her, she’s pretty much the most asexual thing on TV right now. I think the Geico lizard puts out more sexual vibes than Flo does.”