Slate's Ad Report Card: The End of 'Priceless'

Slate contributor Seth Stevenson offers his take on what seems like the last breath of MasterCard's successful "Priceless" ad campaign, which has lasted nine years and spawned about 160 separate broadcast commercials. The new ad asks for viewers to fill in the blanks.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Basic membership at some NPR stations.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Forty dollars.

CHADWICK: The information and entertainment you get from listening to this program every day.

BRAND: Priceless.

CHADWICK: Few recent ad campaigns have penetrated the culture as has the Priceless spots for MasterCard. But Seth Stevenson, ad critic for the online magazine Slate, thinks the ads are finally too much.

Mr. SETH STEVENSON (Slate): MasterCard's priceless campaign has now endured through nine years and 160-odd commercials. You know the ones; the announcer runs through a list of things you can buy with your credit card, and then names one more related concept that he declares priceless.

Now, at last, the spots have reached their inevitable endpoint. MasterCard has reduced the whole campaign to an empty template.

(Soundbite of MasterCard commercial)

Unidentified Announcer: Blank. Nine dollars.

STEPHENSON: We see a man in an open green field, sitting at a desk with an old-fashioned typewriter.

(Soundbite of MasterCard commercial)

Unidentified Announcer: Blank. Sixty dollars.

STEPHENSON: Then a woman on a motorcycle arrives into view.

(Soundbite of MasterCard commercial)

Unidentified Announcer: Blank. One hundred ten dollars.

STEPHENSON: Eventually the man hops on the back of the bike and they zoom away down an empty road together, smiling.

(Soundbite of MasterCard commercial)

Unidentified Announcer: Blank. Priceless.

STEPHENSON: This new ad, which debuted during the Academy Awards telecast, invites you to visit a web site where you can fill in the blanks on your own. You can have a go at this motorcycle spot or instead try your hand at a second unfinished ad, showing a man who receives a letter and then jumps off a sailboat.

(Soundbite of MasterCard commercial)

Unidentified Announcer: Blank. Fifty-two dollars.

STEPHENSON: You have until May 28 to enter, and one winning entry will be broadcast later this year. These now-familiar Priceless ads obviously lend themselves to a contest like this. With those three setup beats and a punch line you can see coming for miles, the campaign is a classic bit of joke scaffolding akin to the old Priest/Pastor/Rabbi formula. But MasterCard's a little late to the party. Pranksters have been repurposing the Priceless shtick for years now.

Fake Priceless ads are still abound on the Internet, most of them featuring mildly raunchy photos and a kicker along the lines of: picking your nose on national television, priceless. The gag is played out at this point. Of course MasterCard hopes to draw less on this proud tradition than on, I would guess, the popularity of the New Yorker's cartoon caption contest, a similar ploy, designed to forge an interactive relationship with an audience.

MasterCard's goal here is to drive traffic to its new website, priceless.com. In that respect, I think the ad's a success. As for their priceless.com site itself, it features credit card offers and a sort of web magazine about food, clothes, music and travel. But why should we trust MasterCard's tips on Rome vacations or music festivals or restaurants in Colorado? I give the new priceless ads a B-plus; a fun contest, but this really does signal the end of the priceless campaign's natural lifespan. There's nothing left to do. It was great while it lasted, but I hope they'll move on before the conceit gets horribly stale.

By the way, the contest site allows you to enter your own text in the blanks and will then plug those words into a new rough cut of the ad. That offers juvenile profane possibilities, of course, but I also noticed that the motorcycle ad was directed by Stephen Gaghan of Traffic and Syriana fame, so I'm imagining a sort of left-leaning, wide-sweeping social statement; a mind-blowing realization that our daily lives will intertwine with and enable a shuttle world built on oil, elicit drugs and clandestine diplomacy by violence? We'll see if that one wins.

BRAND: Opinion from Seth Stevenson, who writes the Ad Report Card column for the online magazine Slate.

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