In this month’s All-Nighter, Robin Beery examines the power of fictional characters like the ubiquitous Flo—and what she means to our culture and Progressive’s brand. 

If you’ve watched TV over the past dozen years, you know Flo, the white-aproned, blue-headbanded Progressive Insurance salesperson. She’s appeared in more than 100 ads for the company. Her vibe is described by Progressive as “aggressive kindness.” She’s had her personality incorporated into a Facebook chatbot, her “look” explained by a hair and makeup tutorial, and her interior life plumbed by internet fan fiction. (Some of it NSFW.) There’s an official merch website where you can buy a Flo costume or a set of Flo nesting dolls or a Flo Chia Pet.

Here are some questions people have asked Google about Flo:

  • Has Flo from Progressive been in any movies?
  • How old is Flo?
  • Does Flo have a twin?
  • How much is Flo worth?
  • Who is Flo’s husband?
  • Is Flo pregnant?
  • Is there a new Flo?

You could probably say this of any celebrity, but it’s likely that more people care what happens to Flo than care what happens to you. Which is pretty weird considering she doesn’t really exist.

People love watching other people. If studies of facial processing in infants are any guide, we’re practically hardwired for it. So when advertisers want to promote a product or elevate their brand—whether that brand is a cleanser, a hamburger, or something more abstract, like insurance—they turn to people time and again. More often than not, fictional ones.

Mr. Whipple was the chastising face and voice of Charmin toilet paper for more than 21 years, admonishing touchy-feely customers with his catchphrase: “Don’t squeeze the Charmin.” In real life, we’d probably be annoyed by such fussy high-handedness and by Whipple’s hypocrisy. (He couldn’t resist the occasional squeeze himself.) Through the fictional lens, however, Whipple’s primary character trait becomes a point of recognition. We know him immediately, and over time, we learn to love him.

We remember with a wry smile the Whipples in our lives: the school bus driver who refuses to let us put the windows down no matter how hot it is, the art teacher who insists we not so much as touch the paper cutter, or the drugstore clerk who’s always leaning over the comic book rack to inform us this is “not a library.”

And we know Flo, though we’ve seldom spent more than a fraction of a minute in her company. She’s the coworker you’d call to bail you out of jail if—and I’m just supposing here—you didn’t want to get close friends or family involved. She’s definitely up for a karaoke duet of “Islands in the Stream.” And when she returns from her vacation in Hawaii, she gives you a pineapple head keychain she bought at the airport in Honolulu, just because it “seems like you.”

Character nature, like human nature, is very slow to change. Compare characters from Shakespeare or Chaucer to those in a recent HBO comedy or drama. While dialects have changed dramatically over centuries, human behavior—and the way it complicates the lives of other people—hasn’t. It may be one reason we’re drawn to character-driven stories in the first place. Like family and friends, well-drawn characters feel familiar, even when their actions sometimes surprise us.

“A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality,” Flannery O’Connor once explained. “I lent some stories to a country lady who lives down the road from me, and when she returned them, she said, ‘Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.’”

In the world of actual fiction—the written kind—you’ll sometimes hear that character-driven narrative has outlived its relevance. And that may be so—if you’re set on pushing the boundaries and creating something new.

Though I’d be happy to be proven wrong, I don’t see advertising pushing those boundaries the way fictional narratives do—since so much of advertising relies on a creative and narrative vocabulary the audience already understands.

In the Grandpa Frank ad from Oscar Mayer, which plays off the style of film director Wes Anderson and his indie film acolytes, those who’ve seen Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (or the similar-in-tone Little Miss Sunshine by the directorial team of Dayton and Faris) are already primed to assume the complicated but ultimately redemptive part that the painfully honest Grandpa Frank probably plays in his family’s life, despite his brusqueness—and we can quickly get on to the essential business of showing off the cold cuts.

In this analysis, we’re drawn to Flo—or her many co-workers who have joined her over the years, each more quirkily dysfunctional than the last—not because she’s new, but because she’s a lot like the other people we’ve gotten to know on primetime TV. Sitcom chipper, with just a hint of sass.

Or—if you’re not buying that line of argument—maybe not knowing her all that well is part of the attraction. We have the freedom to imagine her past, her future, and the entirety of her life outside our brief encounters.

What about the bottom line? Does our deepening sense of fictional Flo as a fixture in our world ever lead to actual sales? In a direct sense, probably not. The insurance industry is both highly competitive—and highly homogenous. Quirky relatable ads are just the cost of staying in consideration and keeping your company on the level with other brands who are working the same angles.

Then again, I might know someone who needs a Flo Chia Pet to brighten up his writing desk. I guess she made the sale after all.