Where were you when you first got Dr. Ricked?
I was on my couch, chuckling blissfully along at the Progressive insurance commercial where a millennial-aged homeowner tries to “coach” an annoyed plumber fixing a pipe under the sink. That’s when Dr. Rick, an older, mustachioed mentor on the scene, gently pulls the homeowner away and reminds him that plumber is the expert here: “You hired him.” (Dads do love doing that, I thought.)
Then, the ad pivoted to Dr. Rick advising a young woman. If there are so many throw pillows on your couch that you aren’t sure where to sit, he told her, you have too many. And you’ve turned into your mom.
“Oh, no,” I said to the two chevron-print pillows and the squishy yellow “You Are My Sunshine!” cushion I had just neatly stacked off to the side of the sofa before I sat down.
For nearly a year now, Progressive’s Dr. Rick ad campaign — in which a tough-love Dr. Phil type helps millennials and Gen Xers avoid taking on their parents’ behaviors when they buy (and insure) their first homes — have been delighting audiences and then, often to their further delight, sucker-punching them with the cold truth about themselves.
Not only have the Dr. Rick spots managed to stand out in TV’s strange, highly competitive world of humorous insurance ads (packed as it is with Progressive’s Flo and her colleagues, State Farm’s Jake, Liberty Mutual’s LiMu Emu, Geico’s pun-happy new homeowners and President Palmer from “24” forever selling Allstate), these ads have carved out a space for themselves in the cultural lexicon of the moment that’s rare for an ad campaign: “You need Dr. Rick” has become an affectionate shorthand for “You’ve become everything that irritated you about your dad.” Fans of the commercials (fans of the commercials!) tweet at the insurance company almost daily.
It doesn’t hurt that when Progressive introduced the Dr. Rick ads in April 2020, they quickly became a warm, sunny island of gentle observational humor in a vast sea of grim commercials murmuring about “these uncertain times.” Or that they’re performed by a cast of veteran improv actors recruited from the Groundlings and Second City. (In one roundly beloved bit, two of Dr. Rick’s patients struggle not to stare at a stranger with blue hair. “We all see it,” Dr. Rick tells them under his breath, as they continue to gape. “We all-l-l see it.” That bit was largely improvised.)
And certainly some credit belongs to Bill Glass, the 49-year-old veteran improv actor with a self-described “resting goofy face” that only gets goofier when he puts on Dr. Rick’s stage mustache (nicknamed “the Beast”).
But what’s most unusual about the Dr. Rick ads is their appeal across generations that, in the “OK, boomer” skirmishes of late, don’t always get along. The ads apply both a gimlet eye and a big heart to an instantly familiar but little-explored phenomenon.
Introjection — the phenomenon of humans absorbing the attitudes, values or traits of the people they spend the most time with — has never been one of the sexier psychoanalysis terms. Lacking the titillating mythological wink of the Oedipal complex or the sharp weaponization potential of passive-aggression, introjection never seeped into the popular consciousness. But in 2015, Progressive’s chief marketing officer, Jeff Charney, was hunting for a novel insight about the stages of life around which to build a new ad campaign. He stumbled across the concept of parental introjection — the absorption of the traits of the adults we’re around first and most frequently.
Talking to behavioral scientists and psychology researchers, “We found that there was a ‘grown-up switch’ that everybody has, and nobody had really mined when that switch turned on,” Charney said. The lurch into self-identified adulthood seemed to be precisely when people started becoming their parents.” We (initially) thought it was when people had kids,” he said. “But we found out it was when they buy homes.”
Soon, homeownership-induced parental introjection was recast by Progressive as “parentamorphosis”; that campaign’s first ads debuted in 2016. Eventually, the ad series would evolve to focus on the don’t-become-your-parents evangelism of Glass’s Dr. Rick.
On an advertising level, the Dr. Rick ads are textbook examples of good sales strategy. Barbara Mellers, a professor of marketing and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, points out that they’re both simple in concept and surprising in content, which is a winning combination for a memorable ad.
Plus, advertisers are always going for relatability: “The more similar a person in an ad is to you, the easier it is for you to imagine yourself in that person’s place,” Mellers said. Adults of any age might recognize themselves in Progressive’s Dr. Rick spots, in the adult child being subtly roasted for becoming their parent, or in the parent — off-screen, but a palpable presence — being razzed for their distinctly parental ways.
That cross-generational appeal is unusual in its own right. For part of this past winter, my partner and I lived with my parents in Minnesota, where we spent weeknights doing one of the few things people can during a Minnesota winter and a pandemic: sitting on the couch watching TV together. Laughter usually had a 50 percent participation rate; whatever made two of us laugh usually made the other two roll their eyes or cluck their tongues.
Dr. Rick was the rare exception. I had always privately chuckled at my parents’ insistence on using their iPhones with their index fingers rather than their thumbs; now, here they were laughing at it too.
As Mellers pointed out, though, what may be making the Progressive ads stick so well in the public imagination is that they point out a phenomenon that’s familiar but hasn’t been parodied to the point of being a trope. “I think we all experience it, but I don’t know how much has been written on it or how broad a topic it is in the general conversation of life,” Mellers said. When she first watched a Dr. Rick ad, “I started remembering funny things about sounding like my mother.”
Charney, too, has thought a lot about his own parents — and his own parentamorphosis — over the course of developing and shooting the Dr. Rick ads. Certainly, he’s thought about the parental habits that irked him; his childhood friend’s mother had a “No cussin’, no fussin’, and no backtalkin’ “-style mantra framed in her home for years, and the alarming fervor with which Dr. Rick throws a similar framed poster in a garbage can, Charney said, is in her honor.
More often, though, he thinks about how he’s developed the same impulse as his own dad to chase down drivers who speed past his home while his kids are riding their bikes — an impulse he’s grown to understand rather than resent. At the end of the day, the Dr. Rick ads are “an ode to our parents,” Charney said.
And although Bill Glass’s face is now the one many probably see in their nightmares about transforming into their parents, even Glass himself has experienced the stomach-dropping Dr. Rick moment. “I’ve caught myself running around the house turning off lights, going, ‘Do we have to have all the lights on?'” he said. “I’ve had a couple of, ‘The laundry’s not going to fold itself!’ And I’m talking to no one. There’s no one around,” Glass added with a laugh.
But for Glass — and probably for many — the Dr. Rick ads have helped illustrate that while he may be turning into his father, he’s far from alone in doing so.
“I love my dad, and I’m in no hurry to turn into him,” Glass said. “But maybe Dr. Rick has helped me lighten up a little bit on some of that stuff.”