‘Flo’ Chart: How Being a Spokesperson Can Help Your Career

Article Image
Photo Source: Grusho Anna/Shutterstock

Commercials tend to last all of 30 seconds. But for some lucky actors, the work can endure for decades. And it’s not only about steady paychecks and residuals. Many spokescharacters reach high Q ratings and full cultural saturation. The New York Times reported that Progressive’s Flo, portrayed by Stephanie Courtney since 2008, is recognizable to 99% of American consumers, an honor that usually only goes to cartoon animals (even trick-or-treaters are wearing bouffant wigs, white aprons, and “I ♥ Insurance” pins in her honor). How many actors can claim that kind of national recognition?

Judging by this star-studded list of memorable commercials, iconic characters, and remarkable staying power, it might be a good idea to start practicing your sales pitch.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt hyped Good Luck margarine for roughly 27 seconds in 1959. Her press agent, Thomas Louis Stix, recalled that she said, “With the amount of money I am to be paid, I can save over 6,000 lives. I don’t value my dignity that highly. Go ahead and make the arrangements.” (Stix assumed she donated to causes for children in Africa, Greece, and West Virginia.)

Bobby Short 

Before joining Charlie’s Angels, Shelley Hack made a name for herself confidently strutting through Revlon’s commercials for Charlie perfume. But for all her charms, the true icon of these ads is cabaret singer and pianist Bobby Short, the consummate New York City sophisticate. Actor Rita Wilson, who also starred in a Charlie commercial, has said that appearing in an ad in which Bobby Short sang was her “brush with greatness.” Charlie deployed the (major musician) x (supermodel) formula again in 1993 when Little Richard and Cindy Crawford paired up for a remake.

Margaret Hamilton

The Wicked Witch of the West could brew one mean cup of coffee. Decades after scaring the bejesus out of Dorothy (and her little dog, too!) as the witch/Mrs. Gulch in “The Wizard of Oz,” Margaret Hamilton played the folksy proprietor of a general store who was always singing the praises of Maxwell House Coffee to her custies, including, in one spot, a young David Caruso.

Jane Russell

In the 1940s and ’50s, Jane Russell was known for being a bombshell actress and pinup, but by the 1970s, she was equally well-known for pitching Playtex’s 18-Hour Bras. Once called “the two and only Jane Russell” by her friend Bob Hope, the “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” star gave a thorough tour of the architecture of the bra, which had to be on a bust mannequin. The National Association of Broadcasters didn’t allow bras to be shown on real, live humans at that time. 

Michael Vale

With his trademark “time to make the doughnuts” line, Michael Vale’s “Fred the Baker” showed the Sisyphian feeling of being a dedicated tradesperson on a constant schedule. Before becoming the mustachioed face of Dunkin’, Vale was a seasoned Broadway, television, and movie actor, the onetime castmate of Laurence Olivier (“Marathon Man”) and drama school classmate of Tony Curtis.

Clara Peller

“Where’s the beef?” Those three little words, delivered with convincing indignation by 81-year-old Clara Peller, helped increase Wendy’s revenue by a whopping 31%.  A career manicurist, Peller started acting in commercials later in life and earned just $317.40 (then scale) for the first Wendy’s ad. While Peller made only three ads for Wendy’s, “Where’s the beef” became a lasting catchphrase, cited in the 1984 presidential debate and sampled by several hip-hop artists.

Max Headroom

If you think AI actors are creepy now, consider what they were like in the mid-1980s, when smarm-bot Max Headroom served as a shallow-fake spokesman in a series of New Coke commercials (two of which were directed by Ridley Scott). Though putatively computer generated, Max was actually portrayed by Canadian actor Matt Frewer in contact lenses, prosthetic makeup, and a molded plastic suit.

Wilford Brimley

If you’ve heard “diabetes” pronounced “diabeetus,” you likely have Wilfred Brimley’s Liberty Medical commercials to thank—or blame. Known for a matter-of-fact folksiness and a walrus mustache, Brimley (“The Natural,” “Cocoon”), who had diabetes/diabeetus himself, repped the home-delivery testing supplies for several years. He later, also memorably, pitched Quaker Oats. 

Paul Marcarelli

As “Test Man,” Paul Marcarelli seemingly roamed the earth for Verizon Wireless, asking, “Can you hear me now?” He kept on roaming with a nine-year contract and was so recognizable that the actor likened it to “everyone felt like they had found Waldo.” When his Verizon contract ended, Sprint swooped in to sign him for their “Paul Switched” campaign that launched in 2016.

Dennis Haysbert

More than a decade before he played God in “Lucifer,” Dennis Haysbert simply sounded like him while talking about acts of God for Allstate Insurance. When he asked, “Are you in good hands?” with his rich, authoritative voice, viewers listened. 

Justin Long and John Hodgman

Justin Long was a hoodie-clad, cool kid Mac, and John Hodgman was the clumsy, square PC in the “Get a Mac” campaign that had dozens of spots. Hodgman played the hamfisted PC with such lovability that Slate magazine noted, “Apple hopes to shift the debate…toward a battle we can all understand: cool kid versus nerd. But these days, aren’t nerds like John Hodgman the new cool kids?”

Stephanie Courtney

Flo has serious staying power. The first Progressive ad that Stephanie Courtney appeared in was actually supposed to be about a superstore, not its enthusiastic cashier, Flo. But then she stole the show and consumers loved her, her hairdo, her apron, and her unbridled enthusiasm for insurance. “We didn’t expect the breakthrough humor [Stephanie] was able to deliver,” said Progressive exec David Pratt.

Dean Winters

Mayhem, Allstate Insurance’s tattered purveyor of disaster and schadenfreude, was created specifically “to kick Flo’s ass,” an ad exec on the campaign said. Dean Winters has played the part for 14 years, sometimes with his “30 Rock” castmate Tina Fey and his “Oz” castmate and real-life brother, Scott Winters. Though Winters, in his ragged and shredded business suit, embodies the willful troublemaker, Dennis Haysbert still provides voiceover for many of the spots.

Laurel Coppock

The success of Flo spawned Toyota Jan. (Are you sensing a theme here?) Laurel Coppock reportedly beat out 500 other actresses for the role of helpful gearhead and dealership receptionist-next-door Jan. Over the course of her tenure as Jan, Coppock has been pregnant twice—and both times her bump was written into the spots.

Milana Vayntrub

AT&T store manager Lily Adams was another character inspired by Flo’s success. For four years, Milana Vayntrub played the role with friendliness and wry wit—and then she went on to direct commercials instead of acting in them. During the pandemic lockdown of 2020, she pitched the idea of an ad showing Lily working from home, and AT&T ran with the idea—and let Vayntrub direct.

Kevin Miles

When he was growing up, Kevin Miles wanted a job where he got to wear a uniform—an athlete, say, or a military officer. In portraying the helpful and modest Jake from State Farm, Miles got his wish: khakis and a red polo shirt. When he initially read for the part, a “Bachelor”-inspired spot, he was burned out on auditioning and didn’t notice the wardrobe notes to wear a version of the look. But he still got the date (aka the job).