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Mayhem, Death and Flo
January 23, 2011  | By Eric Gould
Even the most popular characters on weekly shows don't get the saturation some recurring advertising characters get on a daily basis. If exposure equals success, then they are huge.

My current favorite, Allstate's dark angel "Mayhem," is on every night, pretty much hourly. He's serious, menacing and sometimes gleeful as he orchestrates destruction. I only wish he could somehow make a hit on the Geico gecko. One tree branch from above, and the little guy would be green paste.

The odd thing about Geico's TV ad campaigns is that they hit gold with the Twilight Zone mash-ups of Abe Lincoln and The Little Piggy, yet also carry on with the CGI reptile, probably for demographic reasons. He's cute (they think), while the others are ironic. With Geico, Allstate and Progressive paying national ad rates around the clock, 365 days a year, one wonders how, at those prices, there is money left for anything else.

Reservoir-Dogs-cast.jpg Mayhem-Texting-Allstate-ad.jpg

Allstate's Mayhem hits a spooky cultural trope with his personification, perhaps borrowing (but I'm guessing it's a full-fledged rip) from Quentin Tarantino's 1992 film Reservoir Dogs. In a jewel heist featuring some pretty dangerous men, the job goes terribly and gorily wrong, with each character having donned the undertaker's uniform of black suit, black tie, white shirt. In order to remain anonymous among themselves (thereby eluding the chance to rat on each other later), they're assigned code names; Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange, Mr. Brown, and so on. (Reservoir Dogs' all-star cast includes Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and a young Steve Buscemi.)

Today's commercial Mayhem enters in the same black suit, tie and white shirt, as a pretty dark, memorable character, who also serves up hilarious ways to wreck cars while making the case that he can be avoided by buying Allstate insurance. If you've seen Reservoir Dogs, you may be tempted to load up on Allstate, knowing you do not want to cross paths with Mr. Pink's gang under any circumstances -- especially Madsen's Mr. Blonde, who is one of the more memorable sadists in film history. Case made, Allstate. Where can I sign?

Mayhem's funniest moment comes when he assumes the persona of a distressed teen, texting and not keeping her eyes on the road. He warns darkly, "I'm a teenaged girl. My BFF Becky texted [looks at text] and said she kissed Johnny. Well, that's a problem. Because . . . I like Johnny. Now, I'm emotionally compromised. Whoopsies. [Smashes parked car.] I'm all, OMG. Becky's not even hot. And if you've got cut-rate insurance, you could be paying for this yourself." (See it here.)


Mayhem brings to mind other plot-device characters whose names arise from the metaphor they represent. Ingmar Bergman's character "Death" from his bleak, haunting 1957 black-and-white classic The Seventh Seal arrives for his next victim, a knight returning from the crusades (Max Von Sydow), then agrees to a chess match, knowing that if he loses, he must spare the knight's life.

Well, I'm not sure how many of these self-titled nouns are out there, but they do sort of lurk, through the decades, over our shoulders. Having no proper name, like Clint Eastwood's deadly ghost "Preacher" from 1985's Pale RIder, makes them all the more universal, scary and enduring. (If you have examples of others, please do post them here.)

Speaking of other lurking specters, that moves us to Flo, the hyper-happy, overly made-up and surely mentally damaged floor clerk from the Progressive auto insurance commercials.
Flo, eternally lost in the endless void of Progressive's e-commerce showroom, has most likely gone completely off her rocker, marooned among white shelving, white insurance boxes and the white check-out desk, manned by her dog Pickles.


Flo has a name (although no last name), and is as ubiquitous on our screens as she is bat-shit crazy. I'm not sure this campaign has the same echoes of gravitas from Reservoir Dogs, but it does have an odd, chilling effect and the same subtext -- lots of insurance sold to avoid catastrophe and, in this case, to hasten a quick exit from the white cloud of both the Progressive store and Flo's pancake make-up.

In either case, accosted by Mayhem or by Flo, we buy the characters because they subliminally dig deep. And then we buy the goods. Even if the spokespersons are a little whacked. Or looking to do some whacking.

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