Actress-comedian Stephanie Courtney finds her niche with insurance commercials

pitchwoman: Stephanie Courtney is the likable Progressive Insurance saleswoman Flo in more than 30 TV commercials.
pitchwoman: Stephanie Courtney is the likable Progressive Insurance saleswoman Flo in more than 30 TV commercials. (Mark Duncan/associated Press)
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By David Hiltbrand
Thursday, April 8, 2010

You might not recognize Stephanie Courtney even if you were riding in a cramped elevator with her. This despite the fact that she's on TV more than Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres combined.

That's because Courtney makes her innumerable appearances in the persona of Flo, the crazily congenial, unbelievably upbeat commercial icon for Progressive Auto Insurance.

Flo's look was sculpted for her debut TV spot in 2007. "It all comes from the talents of the hair and makeup ladies," Courtney says. "That first day my hair kept getting bigger and bigger. Suddenly I had bangs and heavy eye makeup. [The producers] said: 'Keep going. Keep going.' They wanted a retro look to go with the '60s Polynesian-bungalow-cocktail-hour music." After the mondo makeover, she still has to ladle on the attitude.

"I just channel the friendliest person I could imagine," says Courtney, who comes to the gig from an improv comedy background. "It's sort of like my mom to the 10th power. She's one of these ladies who is a perennial optimist."

"I love Flo. Flo makes me happy," says Bob Garfield, the ad critic at Advertising Age. "She is some weird postmodern Josephine the Plumber. She really cares about Progressive Insurance, and she really cares about me. And that comes from the most cynical ad watcher on God's green Earth." Flo had better be appealing -- her commercials are on in such heavy rotation. In fact, Flo and a certain lizard are pretty much propping up broadcasting.

"If Progressive and Geico ended, we would have no television," Garfield jokes. Another reason you see so much of this effervescent lady: It turns out she's a pretty effective sales tool.

"It's a very clever campaign," says Bill Cowen, professor and director of the PR program at Villanova University. "They've taken a concept like insurance, which is pretty much an intangible, and made it tangible. Flo is the shopkeeper helping you take the product off the shelf. Of course, you don't buy insurance in a box." Chris Owens, the marketing business leader at Progressive who designed the campaign, says, "We wanted to show how easy it was to buy insurance and how Progressive was a great value. We decided to put a fun and energetic face on it, someone who had a great personality and was friendly with customers.

"Stephanie came to the audition and gave such an amazing performance, everyone looked at each other and said, 'She's our girl.' "

Courtney has taken a rather circuitous route to Madison Avenue's Hall of Fame. Move over, Mr. Whipple.

Growing up the youngest of three in Stony Point, N.Y., about 30 miles north of Manhattan, she was drawn to the stage.

"People say, 'What are your hobbies?' I say, 'I've been doing shows ever since I was a kid.' When I left college, all I wanted to be was a musical theater chick. I auditioned tons. It just didn't pan out." After a friend dared her to get up at a comedy club's open-mike night, Courtney had a new obsession. She moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in the training program for the Groundlings comedy troupe, working her way up to the 30-person main company in 2004.

Lots of laughs. No money. So she held down a variety of jobs, her fallback being catering. "Have tux, will serve crab cakes," she quips.

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