Ad Nauseam: State Farm on the Humiliation of Biking to Work

Drop what you’re doing, click the "play" button and enjoy 30 seconds of outstanding car culture courtesy of State Farm.

The Scene: An African American actor with a shaved head, conservative gray suit and slightly stiff demeanor asks, "Where can you find me? At the intersection of gas prices can not get any higher and guess what? Gas prices just got higher."

Jangly rock music is playing in the background. The camera pulls back and we see he’s standing in the parking lot of an anonymous corporate office building in Any Suburb, USA. Instead of suit pants, he’s wearing bright red spandex shorts, dark dress socks pulled up mid-calf and white sneakers. He looks ridiculous. And he’s standing next to a bicycle. Adding a surreal touch to the whole thing, he is also standing on a bright red circular carpet.

"You know that place where you’re swapping four wheels for two?" He looks down at his own outfit with an apparent sense of resigned humiliation. "Oh, man, I’m there."

Editor’s note: Yeah, I know that place. It’s called a city. I actually really like that place, especially in the spring time when everyone is getting back on their bikes and it’s like a Critical Mass ride every morning on Dean Street in Brooklyn. Anyway…

Text rolls across the screen letting us know that State Farm can save us $369 a year. A voiceover says, "State Farm can get you back behind the wheel by saving you hundreds on car insurance. And you can pay your way with a plan that fits your budget. Call, click or visit and start saving your way. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there."

Then the kicker: As the poorly dressed bike commuter fiddles with his equipment a female coworker walks by and says, "Nice pants, Jim." His voice dripping with irony, Jim replies, "Thank you, Sheila."

Analysis: Biking to work — the humiliation! But not really. This advertisement is actually highly subversive. The actor is so stiff and unconvincing, the commercial almost feels like a hostage video. The poor guy is reading his lines straight into the camera but he doesn’t really seem to believe what he’s saying. And that bizarre red carpet he’s standing on — it fully eliminates any sense of verité. It confirms that this is scripted, staged and not necessarily to be believed.

Meanwhile, on the subliminal level you’re looking at Jim’s legs and body, just like Sheila the coworker was doing as she walked by, checking him out. Yeah, he’s dressed like a freak but he is also extremely fit, athletic and healthy. Sheila’s teasing him but that’s because she thinks Jim is hot. The idea flickers across your medial prefrontal cortext, that part of the brain the neuromarketers are always trying to get to, Hey, maybe I could get fit and healthy by biking to work like Jim. For $369 a year and whatever gas money I’d save by not driving I could buy a really nice bike. Until this State Farm ad interrupted the ballgame I was watching on TV, it never even occurred to me that I could bike to the office park.

"Start saving your way." And thus idea is implanted: I’m going to start saving by biking to work every once in a while. Thanks, State Farm.

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