Oscar advertising: Amex goes to M. Night Shyamalan


When Peter Sealey, then VP of marketing at the Coca-Cola Company, decided he wanted Coke ads made by big-time Hollywood directors, someone had to tell him that you don’t tell Martin Scorsese to reshoot something because "I can’t see the label."  No, apparently, what you say is, "Thank you, Mr. Scorsece, that was great."

I thought of this during the Oscars when AMEX launched their ad by M. Night Shyamalan.   It’s set in a restaurant.  Shyamalan, playing himself with real cunning and some restraint, sits by himself at a table.  As the camera pans past him we hear a "the joke’s on you" laugh coming from someone who has just glimpsed the possibility the joke’s on them.  This emerging note of panic is a perfect prelude to what follows.

What follows is a mother and son who look alike, a baby carriage that comes to stop before almost motionless couple, and a man who scalds himself with a touch.

The camera finds a couple who doing that thing that couples sometimes do in restaurants: have a humdinger of an argument sotto voce.  It sounds as if the man is saying, furiously, "If I don’t understand a movie, I just stand up and walk out, I don’t care."  Ah.

Then the man begins to choke.  He looks to his wife for help.  She returns his gaze with truck stop malevolence, and then looks across the restaurant at Shyamalan with…complicity, compliance, dull acknowledgment?  We can’t tell. 

A waitress drops a couple of empty glasses from her tray.  People standing around tables suddenly disappear.  We understand that these people must have been ghosts because their departure goes unnoticed. 

A diner engaged in the most banal conversation plucks a fly out of the air with her tongue. 

Then the camera approaches a table with three guys in cowls.  One of them loses his hood as a waitress passes.  When he brings his hand up to replace the hood, we see that his forearm is tattooed with occult symbols. I have no clue what is intended here, but I came to think of these three as the monks of the apocalypse.  I happen to know that this is not the sort of clientele a restaurant normally encourages. 

Then a pretty, young waitress approaches:

"Mr. Shyamalan, I love your movies, I’ve seen every single one of them.  Like in the 6th Sense …"  A deluge ensues including the charming line, "the village, first of all, I love everyone’s shoes…"  Shyamalan ducks away from this witless chatter.  He doesn’t have to look at her.  This is not a conversation.  It’s a recitation…not quite as odd as the other things that have happened here, but something else that’s, well, essentially mysterious.   

Then we here Shyamalan’s voice over: "My life is about finding time to dream, that’s why my card is American Express."  And now we see Shyamalan entering the restaurant.  A flurry of questions arise:  Was this not Shyamalan we saw in the first place?  Was this ad our moment of prescience?  And with his line ringing in our ears, we wonder "is this restaurant a place he will find time to dream?  Are these visions the dreams he looks for, or invasions that keep him from dreaming?  Or is the real problem chatty waitresses?" 

Notice two things.  This ad is riddled with indeterminacy, and in the presence of this indeterminacy, I start making stuff up. 

Indeterminacy used to be a "no-fly" zone in popular culture.  I was actually there when Warren Beatty confronted Robert Altman about the opening moments of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  Altman wanted all the voices at once.  Beatty wanted one voice at a time.  It was one of those "all voices at once" conversations, I can tell you.  Actually, there was quite a lot of shouting. 

So here we are almost 20 years after Sealey’s reign at the Coca-Cola Company, and things have changed most markedly.  Now American Express reaches out to a director, and the marketing team knows he will make an ad that’s hard to follow.  They give him, um, a blank check with the clear knowledge that he might even make fun of people who get angry when they can’t follow a movie or an ad. 

What happened?  We grew to love indeterminacy, meanings that withhold themselves, ideas that can’t be thought very easily, emotions threatened to damage the instrument of feeling.  Popular culture has moved on.  On Oscar night, for instance, Robert Altman gets a life time achievement award while Warren Beatty settles into a hard earned, well deserved obscurity. 

Marketing, thanks to this kind of work, is perhaps now catching up.  In the words of Diego Scotti, VP of global advertising at AmEx, New York,

Maybe you don’t need to be so loud and obvious to capture consumer attention.  When you go quieter, with longer takes, you break through more. 

They certainly have mine.  If we are sincere when we talk about cocreation, this, clearly, is one of our best methods.  When we unleash indeterminacy, consumers will rush in to make things up, including our messages and our brands.


Frook, John Evan.  "Always" Intact Amid Coke Shake.  Variety.  July 22, 1993. here.

Solman, Gregory.  2006.  GM tops at Oscars.  Adweek.  March 6, 2006. here.


Thanks to IF and PFSK for the head’s up here.

6 thoughts on “Oscar advertising: Amex goes to M. Night Shyamalan

  1. S Lim

    We are pleased to announce that American Express has selected WorldNetCast.com and its network of over 300 location-based television channels for the online broadcast of its new My Life, My Card, TV advertising campaign featuring M. Night Shayamalan, director of ‘The Sixth Sense’, starring Bruce Willis, ‘Signs’, starring Mel Gibson, and several other films bearing his compelling visual style.

    All WorldNetCast channels debuted the American Express :30 second and 2 minute versions of the My Life My Card campaign on Sunday March 5th following broadcast on the 78th Academy Awards program televised on ABC. The American Express campaign preview on WorldNetCast ends Monday, March 6th at 12:00 AM PST.

    WorldNetCast Founder/CEO Nathan Sassover comments, “We are gratified by American Express’s recognition of our unique Internet television network as a highly targeted environment for world class brands.

    To view the new American Express TV campaign, please visit http://www.WorldNetCast.com .

    Also view new programs and the American Express campaign on this month’s featured channels:

    http://www.NevadaTV.com, http://www.NewYorkCityTV.com, http://www.SouthernCaliforniaTV.com

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Wow, I’ve been writing a bit about uncertainty/indeterminacy lately.

    Ironically, I find my response to this is sadly linear. I focus on this line: “My life is about finding time to dream, that’s why my card is American Express”. And totally struggle with the causual link between finding time to dream and using American Express, presumably vs some other credit card.

    I think it was Adam Morgan in Eating the Big Fish who mocked that’s why advertising. Basically, the that’s way never makes any sense.

  3. Tom Guarriello

    Leaving aside the question of whether or not we’ve become more comfortable with indeterminancy, we’ve certainly all become more familiar with it.

    Remember this question, which used to be asked of every 10 year-old for most of the 20th century: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” When’s the last time you heard (or asked) that question? Why? Because we all know it’s ludicrus (that’s the hip-hop spelling) because:

    a) how on earth would any child know what they’re going to be in a world like ours?
    b) the idea that a child would “be” one thing is now understood to be absurd
    c) we all recognize that by the time this child is an adult, there will be hundreds of things to “be” that don’t exist today.

    And more…I presume.

    When life appears more like an Altman movie every day, Altman movies become more comprehensible. I don’t know if the answer is “quieter/longer takes,” but it’s certainly less prescriptive/determinative ones than ever before.

  4. Peter

    I think the concept we are grasping for here is not uncertainty or indeterminancy, but rather, something like multi-terminancy, or Grant’s plenitude. It’s not that we don’t now know the future; we don’t, of course, but we always haven’t. Rather, we are now blessed with a plenitude of possible futures, much more so than in the past, because of the fast rate of technological change and because of increasing personal wealth.

    I think the key difference between our past and our present is that in the past, when faced with multiple possible futures, we knew that making decisions would cut us off from some of these future paths. Now, there is a real sense that making decisions actually increases our future options, rather than foreclosing some of them. Choosing to be an artist, for example, no longer prevents you also going into business, or also becoming an expert in the latest web technology, or also writing a column, and so on. All options are open, and they just get more and more as you proceed in your life.

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  6. Rageesh Menon

    Dear Shyamalan Sir,
    I was thrilled by the Directorial Might of yours I witnessed in “The Sixth Sense”..
    I’m currently working as an Engineer with an MnC.
    Since my college days, I had a great tilt towards anything related to Filmography..
    I would like to be a part of ur future projects..(acting,asst. direction)..

    Please let me know..
    With Best Regards,
    Rageesh Menon

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