My favorite series of commercials, from Progressive Insurance, taps into the frightening notion many of us experience: becoming our parents.
The premise is that if young people buy their first homes, they automatically transform into their fanny-pack stuffing, bad-joke spewing, throw-pillow hording mom or dad. Since 2020 improv actor Bill Glass has played parental life coach Dr. Rick, an avuncular dude with a push-broom mustache, who specializes in “parentology,” that made up science of helping Gen Xers and millennials recognize “you’re not your parents, you’re you.”
He hosts tough-love seminars meant to help homeowners overcome irritating behaviors. His comments, such as “You woke up early — nobody cares” or “Remember: They are not ‘programs’ they are ‘TV shows’,” have made Dr. Rick as beloved as the Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” lady or even Charmin’s Mr. Whipple. I laughed out loud at Dr. Rick’s declaration at the start of a seminar, “If you printed out directions to get here today, you’re in the right place.” My son ribs me about this even after I explain, in true mom fashion, “What if I misplace my phone or it dies?” Who’s laughing then, lost boy?
Alex might point out some of my quirks, but did my own father ever go out to dinner without introducing himself? I doubled over when I heard Dr. Rick say, “Guess what? The waiter doesn’t need to know your name.” His sarcastic lines work on both sides of the generational divide. These commercials’ 10 million views on YouTube show how Progressive certainly hit a nerve, smack in the funny bone.
One fan wrote, “As a 32-year-old who’s starting to mirror some of my mom’s and dad’s speech and mannerisms, this is so spot on, scary, and hilarious at the same time.” Another commented, “It’s been a LOOOONG time since something as brilliant as this has come out!” Progressive’s commercials debuted in the midst of a pandemic when we all wanted laughs, perhaps especially those millennials who moved back home. Someone went so far as to profess, “Dr. Rick is the hero America needs.”
“Parental introjection,” a real psychoanalysis term, refers to the way all of us absorb traits and values from the adults we spent the most time around. Behavioral scientists claim there’s a “grown-up switch” that can be thrown in all of us, prompted by experiences such as celebrating a milestone birthday or starting a family or buying a home.
A month ago I discussed this familiar phenomenon at a bar with a table of millennials. Kattie told me she recently heard her father’s words — “Stairs aren’t storage” — come out of her mouth. Her dad yelled this stairway safety refrain at her when she was a kid. Now she says the same thing to her small children. My first moment of “parentamorphisis” — Dr. Rick’s word — occurred after getting married and moving into an “adult” apartment. I could not walk past the thermostat without turning it down, just as my dad used to.
Progressive’s chief marketing officer, Jeff Charney, wanted to tap into these universal moments for a new ad campaign based on life stages. Though his popular commercials poke fun at mom and dad idiosyncrasies, Charney says they are “an ode to our parents.” These parodies are filled with “aha” and “oh no” moments, since we laugh hardest when our own embarrassing truths are exposed. No matter how loving and nurturing parents may be, most of us don’t want to take on their unhip traits.
I turned 53 in July; three days later Alex celebrated his 30th. You can guess which birthday gave me more pause. The older my child, the closer I am to becoming my parents. Who am I kidding? I’m already there. Chat up the elderly guy next to you in the grocery store. Check. Save gently used tinfoil and Cool Whip containers so you can send guests home with leftovers. Check. Make faces at every baby you see. How could anyone with a pulse not do that?
Progressive may spoof “un-becoming your parents” seminars, but maybe we should dive in. I’m not talking about doilies and antimacassars sprinkled around the house, but embracing my own mom and dad’s fortitude and goodness. Fewer desires meant less debt for them than my generation or my son’s will ever experience.
My life’s mantra, “It’s not so bad,” is something I often hear Alex say. I learned it from my parents, who were much tougher than either my son or I am. They had to be: first enduring the Depression as kids and the war years as teens. Then birthing and raising eight children. Sure, some things were easier. For Dad: the familiarity of a job with the same company his entire adult life, one that supported a family of 10. For Mom: the privilege to stay home with their kids and not have to join the workforce. They never exercised, and how happy they must have been before there were food labels to overshadow indulgence with guilt. I gasped the other day when I read that a recipe for buttered saltines went viral as the “in” snack. At the See home they started trending in 1948 and have been consumed by all of my siblings and me (and our kids) since we could chew a cracker.
After our parents died, my five sisters and two brothers anchored me in place and buoyed me up, often without knowing it. Just like Mom and Dad did. I see our parents in each of them. One has Dad’s weird sense of humor, another that naughty-boy glint in his eye. One reads obituaries and reports out to us. Another can’t shop without touching every item as Mom used to.
In my siblings I notice the givers and helpers and even the critics and busy bodies. Some of us are gabbers and workaholics, packrats and bargain-hunters. We are clean plate eaters and savers for a rainy day. These traits won’t end up in a commercial unless it’s a Public Service Announcement, one on thanking your parents.