Branding, cocreation and AmEx theater


Yesterday I praised the AmEx spot directed by M. Night Shyamalan and metadirected by Ogilvy.

It shows Mr. Shyamalan in a restaurant where people and things seem to have slipped their moorings, and now are drifting ever so delicately out of ontological alignment.  Mr. Shyamalan looks on.  So do we.

I argued that when we use indeterminacy as an advertising device, we invite the consumer to complete the ad and the brand.  Mr. Shyamalan’s "My Life, My Card" ad invites cocreation, one of the great objectives of the new marketing.  By this reckoning, difficult ads are efficacious ads.  (So much for the "keep it simple, stupid" orthodoxy of the old marketing.)

But today I got thinking.  (It often takes 24 hours for this to happen.  My motto: blog first, ask questions later.  I thank my esteemed Corante colleague Johnnie Moore for the push.)  I got thinking about how cocreation works.  When I complete parts of the Shyamalan ad, am I actually helping to build the AmEx ad and the AmEx brand?  Probably not.  No, actually, for the moment I am sealed into the imaginative world created by Shyamalan.  All puzzles, props and propositions go to him.

Eventually I come unglued.  Eventually, I pull myself out of the Shyamalan restaurant and as I exit, I remember and give honor to American Express.  What happens then?  Is this merely a matter of thanking AmEx for bringing me the Shyamalan spot…in the way millions of consumers thank Tide for a soap opera?  Is AmEx merely the conduit for the Shyamalan ad?  Or are they something more like a participant in his achievements and my exertions.  In sum, do I construct AmEx when I am constructing Shyamalan’s Restaurant?

Well, AmEx may be merely the conduit for Shyamalan’s Restaurant, but this would be nothing to sneer at.  With Restaurant, we all spent 2 minutes in the company of a gifted filmmaker, noticing, wondering, filling in, working out, feasting on 120 seconds of advertising more remarkable than many 120 minute films.  (So you saw King Kong, too.)  And this gift couldn’t have come at a happier time.  There we were, captive of the forced march of Oscar night, bored witless but unable to turn away.  Suddenly, Shyamalan’s gift materialized before us.  Materialized?  It evanesced before us.  Released from captivity in Kodak theater, why would we not give deep thanks and credit to the AmEx theater that was our savior? 

This might be a nice little tradition to hope for: the AmEx theater that emerges for 120 seconds each year in the throes of the Oscars, an beautiful little reminder of what the fuss is about, and why we make or watch films in the first place.  Shyamalan’s restaurant was more engaging than anything that happened.  When it was over, I turned to Pam and blessed her with my usual eloquence: "Wow, what was…that was…wow!"   If this is all it is, AmEx may consider their money well spent.  After all, the much vaunted "magic" of filmmaking is the very thing that seems to vanish from view on Oscar night.  Being the brand that reminds us of the point of the proceedings, well, this has got to be good for something.  It certainly separates American Express rather elegantly from the sprawling goody bag of the occasion.

But I think it is something more at work here.  I can’t help feeling that there is a deeper unity.  And if I had another 24 hours I could tell you what it is.  Ah, here it is: what impresses me is that American Express has left M. Night Shyamalan to work his creative genius, apparently without interference.  And in a way, this would appear to be his gift to us.  He leaves us to work out the significance of the empty baby carriage, the tattooed monk, the woman’s gaze across the restaurant.  AmEx releases Shyamalan from the constraints of advertising that Shyamalan might release us from the constraints of advertising.

This gets right at the brand proposition, and Shyamalan’s take on it.  The former, My Life, My Card, says this brand does not presume to know who you are any more than it presumes to tell M. Night Shyamalan how to make an ad.  It merely puts at our disposal a financial instrument that enables us (as it enabled him).  Mr. Shyamalan customized his ad with this signoff: "My life is about finding time to dream, that’s why my card is American Express."  Now the AmEx card is positioned as something that frees someone of Shyamalan’s gifts from the many harassments imposed by cash and book keeping.  This is the brand proposition on high, in the life of a creative god, and here below, in the lives of mere mortals like us. 

In a sense, what AmEx has accomplished here is the perfect opposite of a product placement.  This ad is not about jamming the product into the frame.  (We learned today that Ford will pay $14 million dollars to get one of their vehicles into the new James Bond picture.  Steve Hall is properly scornful.)    Indeed, AmEx is so sophisticated on this score, they are not even jamming the brand into their own ads.  In the evolutionary order of things, this is pretty remarkable.  More important, it is, from a strategy point of view, exactly on target.


Hall, Steve.  Ford pays $14 million for Bond film appearance.  Adrants.  March 3, 2005. here

6 thoughts on “Branding, cocreation and AmEx theater

  1. makethelogobigger

    Great take. I was caught up in the spot before I knew what it would become. Like Spike’s work for Nike, I like the approach of letting a director interpret a brand. Perhaps its two-minute length also gave it an added punch it might not have had as just a :30 spot.

  2. Grant

    Ashke. Thanks. I had linked in the last post, but nice to have it handy(er). Best, Grant

    makethelogobligger, Good point. So much more to get right (or wrong). And I wonder if this is a measure of the respective gifts of the two professions, that ad men and women can use 30 seconds to good effect. Thanks, Grant

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