The American Express (Amex) commercial featuring Luciano Pavarotti was launched in 1986 and was part of the Portraits campaign that included commercials and photographs of celebrities in a more ‘down to earth’ situation (Stanfel, 2000). The commercial itself is divided in two parts: the first part shows Pavarotti leading the Columbus Day parade in New York and the second part shows a thirty-second statement in which he talks about his private life and how he sees himself:
What am I? Am I successful or am I famous? That I don’t know, I don’t care. I know that people recognize me in the streets – very good. But I have three daughters and one wife and when I am at home, I know exactly who I am. Nothing – exactly zero. But I am happy. (ILoveTobin, 2008)
The commercial ends with the voiceover: ‘Even successful nothings carry the American Express card – Maybe you Should Apply’. (ILoveTobin, 2008)
AmEx had a wide target audience (males and females, aged 18 to 54) and the media of the campaign was composed by printed ads and television commercials. One of Amex aims was to be associated with the ‘brightest ones’ (special editions of Fortune magazine in 1987 and a section of Time magazine in 1989 contained only Amex ads). Additionally mass-circulation magazines (Sports Illustrated, People, Time and Newsweek) and high-profile events such as the 1990 SuperBowl and the 1991 Grammy Awards, were the vehicles selected for running the campaign (Stanfel, 2000). Massive investments in production, including the contract of Annie Leibovitz as the official photographer of the campaign plus the diverse celebrities (Stanfel, 2000) were also part of the brand’s strategy. Amex Portraits campaign can be seen not just as a response to its competitors (Visa and Mastercard) but also as a way of influencing people to choose Amex when paying with the credit card, since this method of payment started to became more usual at the time (Stanfel, 2000). It was more about being part of Amex club, than making the financial transaction itself, as the headline was ‘membership has its privileges’ (Lane, 2007). Overall, Amex wanted to attract new consumers and reinforce their image with the existing ones (Stanfel, 2000).
The idea for American Express to launch Its credit card was actually an insight from Lester Wunderman as he said in an interview for Alan Levy (2010), he thought about the creation of a product that would make people carry money otherwise they would not. Even though the business idea came from Wunderman, Amex’s advertising account was later won by Ogilvy and Mather, which became a part of WPP, as advertising campaigns and corporations started to think globally. Specifically, in the eighties, corporations started to demand global services from their agencies which resulted in networks of agencies throughout the world and the emergence of international media conglomerates – for instance, when WPP bought Amex’s agency, Ogilvy and Mather – The merge of agencies meant more revenue and therefore, a way of attracting new clients in a sluggish market (Leiss et al., 1997, p. 167). This also meant the incorporation of different communication services, marking the transition of advertising companies to communication companies (Leiss et al., 1997, p. 169). While the campaign was running, Amex was Ogilvy’s biggest client with an annual advertising spending total of 60 million dollars, according to Elliot (1991).
In a socio-cultural context, by the same period Amex’s campaign started, another important fact happened in the United States: The calamitous stock market crash of mid-October 1987, which was followed by the premier of Wall Street, a movie that touched upon important historical themes, including the reformulation of the American Dream in an age of hyper materialism and postmodern technology (Arsenault, 1998, p. 20). The Wall Street movie represents the Portraits campaign timeframe and also reflects how power is organized within capitalism. In the movie, there are only two characters that could truly influence the destiny of the economical outcome – Sir Larry Wilderman and Gordon Gekko, who later, says: ‘I create nothing, I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price of the paper clip… Now, you’re not naive enough to think we live in a democracy are you, buddy? It’s the free market – are you with me?’ This quote is a reminder of the organization of power, in a society of capitalism, where the amount of influence is often related to the quantity of money. It depicts the importance of the private sector, as governmental decisions were made in order to help the private sector, such as deregulation, cooperating for a free market. This latter is relevant because a credit card is related to capitalism as it is a representation of money and is key for consuming goods and services as a safe and practical method of payment. The meaning of a ‘safe and practical method of payment’ is negatively changed accordingly to psychological and social context.
More broadly, looking at the marketplace as a cultural system, an institution that uses cultural symbols to shape our lives and material objects as intermediaries in social interactions as well as social distinctionaires (Leiss et al., 1997), and that part of the utility of goods is not “at proving but in sharing names that have been learned and graded” (Douglas and Isherwood, 1979, p.52), the role of the AmEx credit card is to make the consumer a part of a membership society of celebrities such as Pavarotti, but it does not actually make the consumer one of them. As in the movie Wall Street, Bud Fox is the perfect example for this controversy as he has an AmEx’s credit card – even though he does not have any money and is full of debts. However, his situation does not underestimate his social expression when using the card, because, for others, regardless of the truth, he is still a member of the AmEx club.
Thus, by looking at the market society as a masked ball, not only we are able to disguise ourselves with consuming but we can choose the way of doing it accordingly to what appeals best our needs (Leiss et al., 1997, p. 325-326). Persuasion techniques influence us to think or do things that we would not usually do. However, Cortese (2004, p. 13) suggests that advertising should be looked as a discourse about cultural objects, which reflects beliefs, values and ideologies of consumers who participate in their own manipulation. To choose Amex corresponded to Bud Fox (Wall Street character played by Charlie Sheen) desires of succeeding financially and professionally in life. Therefore, is his desire for a determined lifestyle that made him buy the product, which in reality, is just a different method of payment and does not change the person he is.
Although advertising induces to self-criticism and anxieties about personal appearance or social success through unattainable and exclusionary depictions (MacRury, 2009, p. 166), we should look further into a psyco-social perspective, whereas ‘psychoanalysis … as a ‘key’ to understanding and dealing with such complex hidden or ‘unconscious’ conflict and motivation’ (MacRury, 2008, p.258). More specifically, we will see how the ad mediates the relation between the audience and its desires by using different approaches from looking at the product as a sacred object (Jantzen and Ostergaard, 1998), the etimology of narcissism so it is possible to make connections between the narcissistic personality and certain patterns of contemporary culture such as individualism (Lasch, 1979), exclusionary lifestyle (MacRury, 2009, p. 175) and the use of nostalgia (Powell, 2011).
Firstly, the Amex credit card utilitarian purpose is ‘masked’ by symbolic meanings such as membership and status. As part of the Amex club, it is possible for members to progress and get differentiated credit cards such as the platinum card, which is made of titanium and not only carries heavier weight than others cards, but also projects wealth and success (Joyce, 2013). Particularly in Amex commercial, the celebrity (Luciano Pavarotti) is presented for the person he is and not for the usual stereotype he represents. The cultural ascribed quality of a sacred object is what makes it special if compared to ordinary objects and its consumption is connected to a behaviour against conformity of mundane existence, boredom in society or the indifference of routine actions (Jantzen and Ostergaard, 1998, P. 133). By changing the usual method celebrities are presented, Amex creates yearning and desire for the product. Thus, Amex uses the expression ‘successful nothing’ as a way to connect the consumer with the product by being able to relate to the celebrity in the same level he relates to himself.
Luciano Pavarotti also authenticates the simplicity of real life. In this case, is more about using ‘ordinariness to grab attention’ (MacRury, 2009, p. 175) and less about ‘utopian banalisation of everyday life’ (MacRury, 2009, p. 175). None of the commercials of Amex cite the name of the celebrities as this was stated by Ogilvy (1995, p. 103) to give an element of mystery to the campaign. In fact, not stating the name of the celebrity gives more consistency to the message, because the audience still recognize who is in the commercial without Amex promoting the fact they are paying for the celebrity to use their name. As Lasch (1979, p. 47) says, ‘power lies in the eye of the beholder’. The strategy is simple because there are no special effects or lifestyle banalisation – Luciano Pavarotti uses the Amex and gives a small testimonial about his life. He also does not mention Amex in the commercial.
Nevertheless, Luciano Pavarotti’s lifestyle is not as simple as is shown in the commercial. From this point of view, advertising normalizes unattainable or exclusionary lifestyles inducing behaviours such as self-criticism, anxieties about personal appearance or social success (MacRury, 2009, p. 167). Actually the latter can bring an internal conflict as the individual concerns little for the self and searches more for social acceptance. American culture is intrinsically involved with individualism, as Americans believe ‘anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves [Americans]… is not morally wrong, it is sacrilegious’ (Bellah et al, 1985, p. 142), and as stated by Leiss et al (1997, p.338) about the narcissistic phase ‘consumers were encouraged to consider what the product could do for them, personally and selfishly’. The concept of narcissism can also be seen as a result of the fact people usually do not deal with their own anxieties by containment, but by denying or displacing the anxiety through consumption (Richards et al., 2000). The search for success in the world of appearances can be illusory and is often stereotyped. In a subtle way, the commercial itself is contradictory because the way Luciano Pavarotti is depicted is not the way he lives in reality, but is a way that the consumer can relate to. He is not shown as a successful or talented person, but the consumer knows he carries success and is talented.
Another ‘reminder’ of Pavarotti’s success is the first part of the commercial where the viewer is transported back to the past to the Columbus Day parade in New York, and therefore can make a connection between his love for his country and the admiration his country carries for Pavarotti. Thus, ‘Nostalgia… has become a potent mechanism within culture whereby a sense of continuity between past and present can be constructed, especially if this serves to enhance a brand’s positioning in the consumer’s mind’ (Powell, 2011, p. 138). Amex revives a moment through media in connection with the testimonial not only to ‘look backwards’ but also to show the affection between Pavarotti and USA.
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