Yesterday, 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.
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.