Peyton Manning: the man and the brand

Peyton_1Yesterday, the Indianapolis Colts covered themselves with glory yet again, trouncing Jacksonville and extending their winning streak to 13 games.  The Colts quarterback, Peyton Manning threw for 324 yards, opening with a drive that was, in the words of the New York Times, "precise and relentless." 

But for those of us who loiter at this intersection, Peyton’s more remarkable performance was the one in the MasterCard spot.  This is the one from McCann Erickson calls Professional Fan.

This ad has been on air now from some weeks, but my regard for it grows with each viewing.  Peyton Manning is an obessive fan who treats ordinary people as if they, not he, were the celeb.  Manning is shown asking a stockboy for his autograph, cheering on a mechanic, and lying in wait for fast food servers to end their shift and leave the restaurant.

This spot puts Manning and MasterCard in competition with VISA and the New England Patriot’s quarterback, Tom Brady.  I wouldn’t want to say who is the better quarterback, but clearly Manning is the better actor and as a result, MasterCard is, in this contest, champs. 

The VISA spot is charming enough.  It gives us Brady  out to dinner with his linemen who claim to be metaphors for VISA fraud protection.  (And this is pretty good all by itself, and an ad that expands the envelope of creative possibility. Hats off to BBDO New York.)  But there is never any question that we are watching professional athletes manfully doing their best, teetering sometimes on the edge of self embarrassment.

Manning, on the other hand, is note perfect.  It’s an all out performance.  There is no "sliding" on this one.  (Quarterback are allowed to conclude their "runs" with a slide, instead of contact.)  Manning is not pretending to be an actor pretending to be a person.  He is the crazy fan confronting the stock boy, the fast food server, the mechanic. 

McCann Erickson have crafted this narrative, giving it a couple of grace notes that make it live.  When Manning is shouting his praise at a mechanic, he mutters to another guy "you’re good, too."  When Manning sits in a cafeteria shouting "D-Caf" at the wait staff, he is oblivious to the look of concern and astonishment he gets from one of them. 

There is even an "inside joke."  In the last moment, Manning asks a stock boy to sign a loaf of bread to his little brother.  "He loves your work."  (Manning’s little brother also plays in the NFL,  which means that he is probably not really well acquainted with the shelving work of this particular Kroger employee.)

It is worth pointing out here that this is a craft that advertising upstart Google cannot have without a massive change of training and staff.

This "portrait of a fan" is detailed, damning, and punch-the-dog funny.  Manning’s fan is obsessive, familiar, clueless, alarming, patronizing, intrusive, and without shame.  The performance is good enough to make conflicting points: Manning identifies with the fan even as he mocks the fan.  Compassion mixes with revenge.  This is theatre, both relentless and precise.

There is a branding question here.  What does this spot do for MasterCard?  In the world of celebrity endorsement, especially when dealing with a star of Manning’s magnitude, it is normally enough to have the star merely coexist with the credit card.  Hey, presto.  Peyton Manning endorses MasterCard.

But, no.  MasterCard and Manning conspired to engage in a detailed satire.  It is worth pointing out that the Priceless campaign is now 7 years old.  (I think this date is right.  It is astonishing hard to get the details on ad production.)  This means that McCann Erickson is now working on variations on the theme and they are working with an audience (all of us) who get the "Priceless" premise in a fundamental way.  (This confirms, I think, Robert Thompson’s argument about the narrative opportunities that TV opens up…as opposed to theatre or film.) 

More than than, McCann has been working with Manning for at least two years (they did an Xbox spot with him, the "trash talk" one), so they have a pretty good idea of his capacity.  So many of the relationships in the world of marketing are fleeting that a deeper knowledge of this kind is not possible.  But here McCann knows and understands the celebrity, and what he can do.  Clearly, they are now writing for him and his strengths. 

So why the role reversal?  Why have Manning play a fan?  It is unexpected, liminal, a little upside down, and that’s good for winning the attention of a sports fan otherwise stupified by all that bad beer advertising.  It is a god brought low, and that’s very much in keeping with the democratic willingness of present day celebrities to make fun of their stardom.  (They know that if they don’t do it, someone else will.) 

Finally, since those Miller Lite ads from the 1990s, we have been watching athletes consenting to goof for the camera.  (By some marketing alchemy, this does not diminish their standing…perhaps because they are so charged with status, they can give it away with impunity.) 

What does this do for MasterCard?  In the logical shorthand, we might say MasterCard is to Manning as Manning is to the fan as the fan is Manning as Manning is to MasterCard.  Hmm,  not quite.  (But nice try.)  No, the symbolic readout is simpler: MasterCard is now as Manning is: human scaled and more approachable.  (The credit card players continue to be shadowed by the arrogance and self importance of the capital markets.)

Celebrity endorsements work in both directions, and this one works for Manning nicely.  Every professional athlete lives in dread of the cart.  Every athlete is a blown knee away from the end of their career.  Naturally, athletes would like to have options, and they know they have to start cultivating their alternatives before the present one is over. 

Manning has started to position himself for the post career career, and the MasterCard campaign demonstrates not just a sense of humor but a cultural intelligence that most athletes can’t dream of.  (This is one of the costs of that single minded devotion to football.) 

In sum, this spot is a nice little piece of meaning management.  Professional Fan makes new properties for the celebrity endorser.  It then transfers these to the MasterCard brand.  The athlete manages in the process to restock and reposition his own brand.  And finally, the fan finds himself emulated (and mocked) by a man he wants to emulate (and revere).   Popular culture, it just gets interestinger and interestinger. 


Brown, Clifton.  2005.  Another Giant Step for Manning and Undefeated Colts.  New York Times.  December 12, 2005. here.

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Celebrity Culture: muddle in the models.  This Blog Sits At…  here.

post script

Creative for MasterCard’s "Priceless" campaign is handled by McCann-Erickson/New York:  Joyce King-Thomas, Executive Creative Officer; Eric Goldstein, SVP, Group Creative Director, Chris Cereda, VP, Associate Creative Director; Julie Andariese, VP, Senior Producer.  I believe the account planners for the campaign were Nat Puccio and Suresh Nair.  Thanks to Jon Schwartz of MasterCard International for these details. 

32 thoughts on “Peyton Manning: the man and the brand

  1. Grant

    Steve, I took out at subscription to AdWeek, which proves to be interesting for several reasons, but not, as I had hoped, useful for these essentials! Surely, the creatives themselves out to have websites, a portfolio plein air, as it were. But no. They are too busy dreaming up great campaigns apparently. Thanks, Grant

  2. Grant

    Bryan, brilliant, I looked and looked, and couldn’t find it. Guess my googling skills need work. Thanks, Grant

  3. Tom Guarriello

    Grant. Another excellent analyis and post. I’ve seen this ad and admired all of what you’ve pointed out without being able to capture it so clearly.

    I hesitate to bring up one nit.

    As a student of culture and media, I’m sure you remember Barry Levinson’s first film, Diner. In it, Daniel Stern plays a classic character who will not marry his fiancee until she passes a rigorous exam about his favorite football team. As Levinson was born and raised in Baltimore, that team had to be the Baltimore Colts.

    As all Colts fans now remember with deep sorrow and anger, however, their beloved Colts moved to Indianapolis in the middle of the night of December 18, 1983. Coincidentally, 1983 was the year in which Diner was released.

    I’m sure all Baltimorians would join in wishing that your re-location of Peyton to their intriguing little town was a fact!

  4. Peter

    Grant — re finding ad info: I’ve long thought we need an archive of advertising, to keep copies of all ads (good, bad, indifferent) on all media. The thought first occurred to me after seeing a TV program made in the 1970s which consisted of the best US TV adverts of 1960 (or thereabouts) — it was odd how many of these ads, for all types of products, were cartoons, as if a fad had gripped all of Madison Avenue at once (as startling as that idea surely must be!).

    Is a national archive, accessible online, something which your lab at MIT could initiate? I think it would not be hard to get ad agencies to donate a few copies of each campaign they do, in return perhaps for priviliged access to the archive, or perhaps for naming rights to posterity!

  5. Tom Asacker

    Hi Grant,

    Check out for ads: “Looking for commercials? Adfolio has over 50,000 of the worlds best Ads! Subscribe Now!”

    Now THE question: What does this spot do for MasterCard? And how do we get to an answer? My gut tells me that the spots do more for increasing the value of Manning than they do for the client. Manning’s agent probably knows this too. 😉

    If all credit cards were essentially the same AND we chose them on impulse or “pulled them” to us (rather than receiving a direct mail piece) I might agree that the transference of meaning (in this case . . . humble, likeability) may have some influence on the decision. But in this case, I really don’t think so. Do you?

  6. Grant

    Peter, Thanks. Part of the problem here is that the industry has been cavalier about the issue of storage, and sometimes even the creatives themselves don’t keep records of their work. Sometimes, ad firms have archives and sometimes these archives end up in the hands of a library. The Regenstein library has the archives of one of the big Chicago agencies, I can’t think of which one. Duke University has a collection of ads, mostly print, and not quite as broad aor as documented as I would like. It is astonishing I think that we should have treated these resources with such disdain. When I was working at the Royal Ontario Museum, and trying to set up an Institute of Contemporary Culture, the administrative forbade me to collect anything. This was ok for some purposes, ludicrous for others. When I challenged them, they would always call up the specter of the campaign button. The notion seemed to be that popular culture produced so many things with such frequency that it was impossible to capture in an archive or a museum. They seemed to think that the museum was an archive and that really there was room only a few tokens of each type. They were happy to have history eliminate most of the objects, and virtually all of the context. It just made things so much easier! (Perish the thought that we would actually do our jobs.) Thanks, Grant

    Tom, yeah, I signed up with AdForum a few years and found them really clumsy and clueless. What I want is ready access, not just for me, but for anyone who might be happening to read This Blog Sits At. It’s just a bad business model, at odds with what the internet can do and access is for. As to credit cards, I think they resort to all that push marketing is the result that they are not yet very good at building brands, despite some heroic efforts and, as noted, some great creative. It has taken them a long time to find their way out of the “consumers are rational/capital is transparent” assumptions of the industry. Thanks! Grant
    p.s., I bought a PSP, thanks to your inspiration, and it is dazzling.

  7. steve

    I’m a few days late here, but I kind of agree with Tom. I love and remember the ad but frankly have no idea that it’s for Master Card unless reminded. Furthermore, there is no impulse purchase opportunity where a sentiment or association like that is going to drive behavior.

    Shouldn’t branding for credit cards be about the identity of the user (if you use this card you’re smart or hip or know how to enjoy life or ethical or whatever they’re trying to pull)? The Manning ad doesn’t really do that (MasterCard users have good senses of humor?–that’s a reach to me) and strikes me as a waste of resources for MasterCard.

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  9. Seth Edenbaum

    There’s a difference between the ad was made and the way you are perceiving it. For the people who made it, who were involved it it after the idea was thought up, the ad is simply a thing they made. We’ve com to the point when advertising where pure invention is the equal of intent (Giotto made billboards for the Catholic Church.)
    This is the result in how capitalism is perceived by those who live in it: it is no longer a question of Capitalism as ideal but simply as fact.

    Advertising is has always been seen as an intellectual act, as certain forms of popular literature are seen by their fans as primary intellectual or illustrative. Sci Fi, Fantasy, ‘Speculative’ Fiction, are usually nothing more than advertisements for ideas. As a philosophy of art it’s basically Stalinist; though that’s become the template for all theoretical activity. The academy has become Intellectual technocracy; it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about analytic philosophy or deconstruction: ideas take precedence over acts.

    In describing this ad you’re describing the opposite;
    congratulations, you’ve just discovered art.

  10. coal_train

    Too bad all the creative energy that goes into advertising (and hollywood movies) does not go toward improving the quality of life for people. What a waste.

  11. Grant

    Steve, as we both know, this is an old debate, but’s it not clear that active recall should be used as a measure of the efficacy of the ad. The better test is to examine your concept of the brand before and after the ad and to see how the semantic shield has shifted. And, yes, it should be about the identity of the user, but that’s what people draw from this (and other) brands, so it has to begin here. (But your point is a good one, and my argument was sliding here.) Still if Manning makes meaning for Mastercard and those meanings are about a certain intelligence, humor, intellectual (even identity mobility) Mastercard becomes the card for me. Thanks! Grant

    Seth, Stalinist! Good lord, sir. I would argue (with the full argument to be found in Culture and Consumption I and II) that advertising is a rhetorical exercise not very different from any persuasive exercise. We have choice, we make constructions, we cocreate, but if the thing goes well meanings are manufactured for the brand. So it’s not actually art just as its not actually science. These are merely the two models between which the b-school discourse as careened endlessly when all that was really needed was a few pages from Aristotle on rhetoric and especially metaphor. Thanks, Grant

    Coal train, but I beg to differ, I believe Hollywood and Madison Avenue have very substantially improved the quality of my life. Thanks, Grant

  12. Seth Edenbaum

    According to the author of the post – I see now that it’s you Grant- the ad is mostly pursuasive of itself: it’s a self-legitamizing exercise. By this logic corporations are looking to attach their names to interesting advertisements.
    Ergo… Giotto.
    Looking at your linklist I should have known how you’d respond.

  13. Gerena Estep

    I am desperatley looking for a address for Peyton Manning for my 10 Year son to which he can write to Peyton. He really worships him and there is a story I would like to share with Peyton on how he is a great idol for our kids today. Please.

    Gerena Estep

  14. Lee Roberts

    Peyton, I cheered you on all the way and told you this is your time. All the Colts have the
    heart of a champion.

    Chicago MAY be able to slow down Addai and Rhodes but if you avoid the Bear’s best safety and best corner–the other safety and corner offer you a path to pick them apart and get an
    early substantial lead in Superbowl XLI.
    G O C O L T S ! ! !

  15. curtis

    My favorite team ever going to super bowl big party hear in arkansas. And the Colts win the super bowl.YEAH!!!!

  16. Jasper Hillier

    Congratulations Colts!!!! I am 10 years old and a HUGE fan of Peyton Manning….I really want his address to send him a letter!!!!! Any tickets out there for the SUPERBOWL????? thank you…Jasper….GO COLTS!!!!!!

  17. Jasper Hillier

    I remembered one more thing.Even if he doesnt win im still his #1 fan.Go Peyton and the gang!!!!

  18. Tom

    Is Peyton Manning a “log cabin republican”?

    I won’t go as far as to detail the close relationship between Peyton Manning and Kenny Cheseny including a duet with the singer. I will however, state the fact that Manning has given the Republican Party over $6,000.00 since 2004, including over $2000.00 to George Bush during his re-election campaign. Well after it was public knowledge that Bush:

    A. botched a war that he started and lied to the would about as a personal vendetta that has killed so many Americans in vein;

    B. has gutted the EEOC and the NLRB all in the name of corporate profits and to further his fascist style of government.

    C. has lied to every American and every nation in the world in the name of Power, Corruption and Money.

    D. has brought this country to its knees both economically and militarily.

    E. has continued to walk all over middle-class America, You know the very people who built this nation and have allowed Mr. Manning to participate in the sport he seems to love.

    Appointed Alberto R. Gonzales, another Texas crony, to head the U.S. Department of Justice. Knowing damn good and well that he would be facing various charges as it relates to criminal activities and war crimes while has was in an official position.

    This list goes on and on and on.


  19. Janet

    I have a daughter Wendy born March 24 same as Peyton who thinks he is greatest next to god no joke. Her ship was the first to hit Iraq, thank god she is back in Virginia now. I was hoping that Peyton might sign something for her which would mean so much to her. The last two Decembers she has been home on leave she flew to Indianapolis to watch the game before she came home to see me and her dad, so that shows you who rates Ha. Janet Faust 10311 Lorainne Rd. Leopold In. 47551

  20. eri cy

    eric y and jay whitlow do not understand Tom’s comment (above) even with the obvious spelling errors corrected.
    eric y and jay whitlow and even sammie pay tribute to janet’s daughter wendy for her service to our country and her devotion as a manning fan.
    eric y and jay whitlow but not sammie

  21. Pat

    Poor Peyton. He can’t even win with the refs on his side!!



  22. Pat

    oh yeah and p.s. go do another commercial peyton. he’s all about the money. pats get it done.

  23. SHERRI


  24. Maya

    No, Peyton Manning is better than Brady, yes, does Peyton Manning have a e-mail address of his own or is it just the teams?

  25. Stanley Marchand

    Peyton; I am from Houma,Louisiana; now in Gulfport,Miss.
    I am 72 yrs young, and in the 70’s when your dad Archie was playing with N>O>; I met him and a few players in Houma at a restaurant.
    on the back of a order form, he and the rest signed it for me.
    I think you and Elie would like a part of your dads memory.
    I would like for you and he to have it, before the Lord calls me up…….
    Tell me how to get it to you
    Stanley Marchand; 11212 Pinehurst Pl. w.; Gulfport.Ms. 39503 tel # 1-228-324-0391

    You and Elie do it again; I’m pulling for the both of you

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