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Credit card ads reflect changes in economy, public attitudes

Gone are 'spend, spend, spend' advertisements. They're here for us now

By

Once upon a time, life took Visa.

All good things were priceless with MasterCard.

Membership had its privileges with American Express.

But that's all changing as America's card brands retool their advertising strategies in an effort to convince economically battered consumers to forgive them their excesses, cut them some slack -- and find it in their debt-hardened hearts to buy on credit again.

Second only to Wall Street investment bankers, credit card issuers have become this year's favorite punching bag for cash-strapped consumers and outraged lawmakers eager to end their usurious policies and practices.

Even before the reforms of the Credit CARD Act of 2009 kick in early next year, three major card brands have rolled out new TV campaigns that seek to repair some of the damage wrought by an ungraceful credit ebb and heated regulatory hearings.

"The credit crisis has sent the issuers and associations back to the drawing board to figure out what works best in this new regulated environment," says Anuj Shahani, director of competitive tracking services at Synovate Mail Monitor.

Based on these three new TV commercial campaigns, the card companies hope to change your perception of them from go-ahead-and-spend-you-deserve-it libertines to we're-really-here-to-help-you-control-yourself counselors.

But since their livelihoods depend on how much you charge,don't expect any anti-plastic messages from these new massage treatments.    

American Express: "Don't Take Chances, Take Charge" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m56F4EKN9hg

American Express has long depended on exclusivity and celebrity to entice us to its growing family of colorful cards with the slogan, "Membership has its privileges." Its recent "Do You Know Me?" campaign featured the likes of Martin Scorsese, Ellen DeGeneres and Robert De Niro.

While there is still a whiff of the VIP lounge about its new "Don't Take Chances, Take Charge" campaign, this 30-second journey takes a neutral stand on conspicuous consumption and focuses instead on the benefits of using the green card over cash.

The opening line -- "Sometimes the little things in life feel like our biggest enemies" -- shows us the unhappy faces of luxury purchases past: an expensive purse, latte, leather furniture and a computer mouse that symbolizes online shopping. The subliminal message: your card is another treasured "little thing" that only seems like an enemy.

Next, it injects a touch of fear by throwing in a symbolic gas and water bill, followed by a dash of identity theft. Times are scary. Boo!

Once the "we'll repair/replace/credit your account" reassurance message is delivered, it cuts to smiling images of everyday ,nonfrivolous items (a bike, baggage carousel, an old prop plane), closing with a down-to-earthiness rare for American Express commercials.

"The new campaign encourages consumers to think carefully about how they pay for their purchases and to take a closer look at the cards in their wallet," says Deborah Curtis, vice president of advertising for American Express.

Especially the green one.

Visa: "Let's Go"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qmgib1lSy54

Of the large credit card transaction processing companies, Visa has always been the most extrinsically driven brand. Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, the card promoted self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption -- while pointing out the growing number of places where credit cards are accepted -- with "Visa. It's everywhere you want to be." 

But as rival MasterCard morphed its flagship slogan, "There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard" into the more family-focused, get-a-life lessons of the "Priceless" campaign("Haircut: $10. First haircut: priceless."), Visa responded in 2006 with its own non-materialistic tack, "Life takes Visa."

In "Let's Go," Visa does indeed go in a new direction to tout its Visa Check Card Gone are the celebrities, the exotic locales and actor Billy Crudup's "Priceless" punch lines, replaced by working-class images: a suburban tract home, a bedroom with no window coverings, a morning commuter train platform.

It's almost like Visa is now everywhere we don't want to be.

Our caviar dreams have been scaled back accordingly. The voice-over asks, "Will you do something that you've always wanted to do?" followed by images of a jog in the park and a walk in the surf. Have our dreams really sunk that low?

The kicker -- "Will you keep going, no matter what life throws your way?" -- shows a guy boogying in his boxers, a senior partner looking bewildered and a woman content to stay in the surf. What, is this an ad for Aricept?

End message: "More people go with Visa."

Translation: Just keep going. We know you'll buy something.

Discover: "Get Cash Back: This One's On Me"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tp5yCERgqZM

Admittedly, the opening sequence of this Discover commercial brings to mind the Cialis twin bathtubs as a giddy baby boomer couple bumpstires on a go-kart track. The "Get cash back" graphic morphs into "Get immaturity back."

Translation: With cash back, you can afford a second childhood, although not the SUV from previous commercials.

Scene two shows three guys toasting beers in a bar. What are they toasting? That one of them can now afford to buy the round -- either because of the cash back or the fact that they have no dates.

Scene three: Dad and the kids "Get Saving the Universe Back" while enjoying some at-home gaming.

Subliminal message: Keep it simple and no one gets hurt --financially.


 

Published: January 1, 2010


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