Marketing Innovation – Pants on Fire and the Metaphor Tool

Marketing Innovation - Pants on Fire and the Metaphor ToolHere is an example from the long-running Progressive campaign featuring the lovable character, Flo.  It uses the metaphor tool.  The Metaphor is the most commonly used tool in marketing communications because it is a great way to attach meaning to a newly-launched product or brand. The Metaphor Tool takes a well-recognized and accepted cultural symbol and manipulates it to connect to the product, brand, or message.

The tool is one of eight patterns embedded in most innovative commercials.  Jacob Goldenberg and his colleagues describe these simple, well-defined design structures in their book, “Cracking the Ad Code,” and provide a step-by-step approach to using them.

The tools are:

  1. Unification
  2. Activation
  3. Metaphor
  4. Subtraction
  5. Extreme Consequence
  6. Absurd Alternative
  7. Inversion
  8. Extreme Effort

The trick is to do it in a non-obvious, clever way.  The process is called fusion, and there are three versions:  Metaphor fused to Product/Brand, Metaphor fused to Message, and Metaphor fused to both the Product/Brand and Message.  Here is an example metaphor fused to the message:

If you are not sure what happened here, you probably need to know that “Liar Liar Pants On Fire” is a playground taunt that kids use whenever they think the other is lying. Fibbing is naughty, and “pants on fire” is a euphemism for spanking. This commercial does a nice job of highlighting Progressive’s value proposition of “helpfulness and transparency” while dissing the competition. “No mas pantalones.”

Flo, herself, is a metaphor of the helpful retail sales person on the floor of an imaginary “insurance department store.” Flo, played by actress Stephanie Courtney, is the brand personified, and Huffington Post describes why we love her:

“Flo steals your heart as easily as Cupid shoots an arrow on Valentine’s Day, whether she’s talking about her tricked-out name tag, or ardently pointing out ways Progressive can insure anything you own, tailored to your specifics. And she can fist bump a customer with her pricing gun as easily as John Wayne drew his Colt 45. Fans follow her on Twitter, FaceBook and MySpace; not a shy lot, they often leave love notes which can be read by anyone, even Stephanie Courtney.”

In the clutter of so many insurance commercials, the metaphor, Flo, stands above the rest.

image credit: progressive

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Drew BoydDrew Boyd is Assistant Professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati and Executive Director of the MS-Marketing program. Follow him at and at

Drew Boyd




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