Slate's Ad Report Card: Wes Anderson's Card

Filmmaker Wes Anderson is famous for quirky, comic films such as The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. Now he's winning new fans with his take on the American Express "My Card, My Life" ad campaign. Slate ad critic Seth Stevenson offers a review of the unique commercial.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

Credit card companies face unique challenges when trying to sell their services in commercials. Seth Stevenson, ad critic for the online magazine Slate, has this review of the latest attempt by American Express.

SETH STEVENSON reporting:

Credit card advertising fascinates me. There can be no less interesting product. We're talking about a small rectangle of plastic that eases financial transactions. And yet, or maybe as a result, the marketing campaigns are these expansive, abstract affairs. Case in point, the new spot for American Express, directed by and starring movie director Wes Anderson.

(Soundbite of American Express commercial)

Mr. WES ANDERSON (Director): Anyway, American Express commercial, here we go. Can I get my snack?

STEVENSON: In the spot, Anderson, maker of Rushmore, among others, takes us behind the scenes on an imaginary new film, as he shoots a sequence involving a car crash, a ballpoint pen, and a Panama hat.

(Soundbite of American Express commercial)

Mr. ANDERSON (Director): Cut. Cut. Not enough smoke and the snow was too loud. We'll go again right away.

STEVENSON: As Anderson walks across the set trying to describe for us what it's like making movies, he's interrupted by a series of comical directorial chores.

(Soundbite of American Express commercial)

Mr. ADNERSON: How do you tell her?

Unidentified Woman: Sandy wants to pick another girl.

Mr. ANDERSON: Can you do a .357 with a bayonet?

Unidentified Man: Yeah, I don't see why not.

STEVENSON: In the end, as a camera frame lifts him into the sky and some pigeons fly past, he tells us...

(Soundbite of American Express commercial)

Mr. ANDERSON: My life is about telling stories. Are those my birds? I think so. I need those. My card is American Express.

STEVENSON: This image campaign, first launched in late 2004, centers on high-wattage celebrities, including Tiger Woods, Ellen Degeneres, Kate Winslet and Robert DeNiro. It makes no attempt to distinguish the card in any tangible way. We don't hear about interest rates or rewards programs. In fact, we don't hear about the product at all until the final few seconds when the celebrity reveals, a bit out of nowhere, that his or her card is American Express.

This supersoft-sell approach, separating the commercial's narrative from its product pitch, can be dicey. Robert DeNiro's spot is particularly grating. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the ad is a gorgeous little film about DeNiro's long love affair with New York City.

(Soundbite of American Express commercial)

Mr. ROBERT DeNIRO (Actor): My oldest friend. My first love.

STEVENSON: There's haunting Philip Glass music and even a couple of shots of Ground Zero.

(Soundbite of American Express commercial)

Mr. DeNIRO: My heart breaking...

STEVENSON: The whole thing is quite moving, right up until the Amex plug at the end, which to me desecrates all the genuine emotion that drove the rest of the spot. The idea that the 9/11 angst could service fodder for a credit card ad seems a tad inappropriate. Okay, maybe more than a tad. No such problem with this new Wes Anderson spot. It doesn't take itself seriously. When divorcing the sales pitch from the plot results in wildly amusing clips like this, I'm all for it. So many dry yet fanciful Andersonian moments, one after another. For example, Anderson's told that the production can't afford a $15,000 helicopter shot, which I believe actually happened during the filming of Rushmore. So he whips out his wallet.

(Soundbite of American Express commercial)

STEVENSON: Perhaps that an oblique reference to the power of the Amex card. I've watched the ad at least 10 times now and still haven't quite grown bored with it. The brief bounded format of a commercial plays to Anderson's strengths and hides his weaknesses. No need to develop believable characters or to build organically-motivated relationships between them, things Anderson has never managed to pull off in a film. Here he can just indulge his greatest talents, set pieces, art direction, whimsy and ironic bombast. I give the spot an A. Several people have noted that Anderson is paying homage to Francois Truffaut's classic film about filmmaking, Day for Night, even using the same music. But since Day for Night can't be had on Amazon for less than about $60 right now, I guess we'll take what we can get.

ADAMS: Opinion from Seth Stevenson, who writes the ad report column for the online magazine Slate.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: