At first, “Dr. Rick’' was just Rick, the mustached leader of a support group for people who found themselves suddenly “turning into my dad” after they became homeowners.
But the creative team at Arnold Worldwide, the Boston-based advertising agency that devised that clever 2017 TV commercial for the Progressive insurance company, knew right away that they had struck gold with both the character and the actor who played him, Bill Glass.
So they built a series of spots around Dr. Rick, and they have turned out to be some of the most inspired TV commercials in years. The goal is to raise awareness of the homeowners’ insurance sold by Progressive — not, on its face, fertile ground for comedy. But from that unpromising soil Arnold has created an original and endearing addition to television’s gallery of quirky ad characters.
At Arnold, the term “parent-a-morphosis” is used to describe the made-up but completely plausible-sounding malady in the Dr. Rick ads, in which new homeowners struggle against the tidal pull of transforming into their parents once they get a mortgage. “Even though it’s a fake affliction, it’s a ridiculous construct — he’s a doctor for an affliction that doesn’t exist, and we all know that — it feels true because the story’s been told in the right way, that’s relatable,” said Sean McBride, the chief creative officer of Arnold Worldwide, in an interview over Zoom.
Indeed, both the gimmick and the genius of the Dr. Rick ads is that viewers are likely to see both their parents and themselves in them, at least if they’re being honest. So along with a jolt of amusement, the commercials deliver a flash of recognition. “I can tell you for sure that of all the things I’ve worked on, it’s the one that has the most ‘Oh my God, yes, that’s my dad, that’s my mom’ [reaction],” McBride said. “I’d be lying if I told you that the first time I saw this I thought ‘The universe is going to love this.’ But I had an inkling. That’s our job.”
The sixth Dr. Rick commercial debuted Sunday, just before the Super Bowl, and more are planned for this year. But Dr. Rick still has a long way to go to catch up to the dauntless Flo, also created by Arnold, who has been featured in roughly 175 Progressive commercials over the past 13 years.
While Glass was not slated at first for such a large role, he was no stranger to McBride and the Arnold team. “I’ve seen Bill a good amount,’' said McBride. “If you do this job long enough, you see people come through casting a lot. And he’s certainly an old pro and really talented. I’ve also seen a bunch of spots that he’s been in, and he’s been very good. So he was not a totally unknown quantity to us.”
“We cast him for that [group leader] role, and he was great,” he said. “And then as we decided how to evolve the campaign, we had this notion that maybe we could build a whole new story line around this guy who’s running that group session: Dr. Rick.”
Part of what makes the character work so well, in McBride’s view, are the qualities that Glass has transferred from himself to Dr. Rick. “There’s a humanity to him, there’s a vulnerability to him, that allows for the idea that there’s like two percent of it that feels that maybe [Dr. Rick] could be a quack,” McBride said. “It helps with the humor of the campaign.”
Arnold has been Progressive’s ad agency for 14 years, and McBride says the client’s marching orders are to create ads that feel like network programs. “So we get held to the standard of entertainment: Is this a memorable character? Is this a distinctive universe?”
The answers with the Dr. Rick ads are yes and yes. Glass’s comic timing is spot-on, and so is that of his costars. Dr. Rick’s avuncular demeanor sometimes buckles under the strain of his wayward clients, but the therapist practices his dubious specialty with utter commitment to them. “I’ll tell you, we have lots and lots of funny material when we come out of those shoots,” said McBride. “Sometimes it’s trying to decide, we have 20 funny bits and we have to pick the best four.”
My personal favorite is the spot where Dr. Rick tries a little behavioral modification by bringing his charges on a group outing to a home improvement store. When a young fellow with blue hair strolls past two middle-aged guys standing next to Dr. Rick, they are virtually palpitating with the dad-like need to comment on it. “We all see it,” Dr. Rick says to them in a let’s-keep-our-cool tone of voice. “We all see it.”
I also love the one where Dr. Rick quizzes his clients on the correct pronunciation of “quinoa.” Offers one woman: “Kee-yahn-noe.” Guesses one guy: “Joaquin.” Even the very first commercial was a riot, from the support group member who admits she has begun texting in full sentences, to the guy who says he now refers to every child as “chief,” to the man who confesses: “Next thing you know I’m telling strangers ‘Defense wins championships,’ ” to which the woman seated next to him replies: “Well, it does.”
Like many sitcom writers do, the members of the Arnold creative team sometimes draw from the behavior of their own parents for inspiration. However, McBride said, “There’s a little bit of special sauce in between ‘I had a parent and I can list you the things he did’ and being able to make a commercial for which everybody gets a laugh out of it and goes ‘Oh my God, that’s me.’ ”
“It’s been wonderful that people seem to like them and remember them. As an agency, we all take pride in that,” he said. “We know there’s a certain level of randomness to anything in culture. We’re good at improving the odds. Certain things just happen and hit. We seem to be sitting in one of those right now. And that’s a good place to be.”
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.