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TV's insipid commercials, decoded

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Now Progressive Auto Insurance is onstage. A youngish, nervous man in a blue dress shirt is in a sterile, cold-seeming superstore starkly illuminated in white. The walls and display cases, with their identical blue-bound white boxes, resemble the spare simplicity of Apple stores. Flo, the chirpy Progressive woman, dressed in a white apron over white pants, half-sneaks up to the man: "Hi, may I help you?" She looks and acts in this auto insurance hospital like a loony private nurse.

Man: "Hi, I'm looking for car insurance that isn't going to break the bank."

Flo: "You're in the right place. Only Progressive gives you the option to name your price," each word accented. "Here" – suddenly pointing at him, as if it were a gun, a large blue-and-white labelmaker.

Man (confused, looking at the "weapon" now in his hand): "A price gun? So tell what I want to pay?"

Flo (rushing, hustling him): "And we build you a policy to fit your budget."

Man (now giddy): "That's cool!" He uses the price gun on a nearby product. "Ahh … I feel so empowered."

Flo: "Power to the people!" – fist in air.

How could the angry fist of 1960s protest end up being a marketing tag line? How could the slogans pasted on the walls of Paris – , we'll go all the way – turn into a woman so euphoric you want to apply duct tape to that blabbering mouth?

What were once vibrant, challenging speech and actions have morphed into humor without depth in order to be intelligible to all. Using artist Jeff Koons's work as a whipping boy to make a point about present culture, the late French semiotician Jean Baudrillard said in 1990: "It's a wax museum! It's just mush! You see it, then forget it." The idea is all the more relevant today. Mr. Baudrillard, like every maestro semiotician, excelled at interpreting a sign as something that makes us know something else. That "something else" he discerned was the near future: us, present time.

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