Ad Report Card: Those Cards at Discover

It’s not surprising that readers of this column have lots of opinions about commercials. But it’s comparatively rare for those opinions to cluster around a particular ad. So I’ve been intrigued at the number of comments I’ve gotten about a recent spot for the Discover credit card set in a hospital emergency room. This is actually part of a campaign that I’ve been watching unfold with some interest.

ER The E.R. ad: The spot that’s gained the most attention starts with a guy wheeled on a gurney through a (fake) hospital, St. Sophie’s. “At the E.R.,” a narrator explains, “they can reattach a severed limb or resuscitate a flat-liner in no time.” In the operating theater, as the hospital workers prepare to zap him, the guy pulls out a credit card. “But should you need the healing hands of the folks at the E.R.,” the narrator continues, as the action screeches to a halt and the medical staff waits to see if the patient’s credit is approved, “pull out your Discover card.” The credit verifier gives the thumbs up. “Because there’s only one thing better than having St. Sophie’s save your life,” the announcer concludes. “And that’s getting back cash for them to do it.” The addled patient rubs his fingers together in the universal counting-that-dough symbol. The tag: “Some people like getting cash. The Discover card, with cash back bonus, for the slightly smarter consumer.”

Hyena The other ads: The first of this group of “edgy” spots on behalf of Discover features a young man and his daughter in a pet shop, where the little girl is interested in a $600 beagle that Dad finds “kind of expensive.” What’s got his eye is an animal whose price has fallen from $300 to $25. It’s a hyena. “What’s up with this one?” he asks a pet store employee. “No one seems to want him,” the guy says, as he sets about feeding the hyena pup. Dad to daughter: “Aw, look, sweetie, he needs a home.” Right about then, the animal’s food bowl flies out of the cage like a rocket, and, apparently, the beast gets hold of the pet store guy’s hand and yanks him halfway into the cage. The man screams and screams. Dad looks again at the beagle sign, perhaps concluding that the dog is worth it. “Some people know when to pay a little more,” the ad advises in closing, repeating the “slightly smarter consumer” line.

Danger Kitty The last two spots are spoofs. One borrows the rise-and-fall style of VH1’s Behind the Music to tell about Danger Kitty, a fake metal-glam ‘80s band that failed to spend its riches wisely and was reduced to playing bar mitzvahs when its popularity proved ephemeral. The other winkingly touts “the purse boot,” a device similar to the “boot” used to immobilize errantly parked cars. The point of both gags is that “Some people just can’t live within their means.” The Discover card, “with spending management tools,” is for, again, those who are “slightly smarter.”

Purselock Smarter than what? Discover has fought an uphill battle against better-known credit card brands for its entire existence. It has a difficult assignment in that credit cards are largely about convenience, and there’s nothing less convenient than a card that lots of restaurants and other outlets don’t accept. Of course, that problem isn’t going to go away until more people carry Discover, which won’t happen until they become more convenient, etc. How, then, to break the cycle? The main selling point has usually been the “cash back bonus” (a small year-end rebate, basically) mentioned in the E.R. ad. Now, I gather, Discover is positioning itself as “smart,” which, apart from being the most devalued adjective of the past decade or so, is kind of vague in this context. Perhaps Discover is the card of choice for those consumers who are not total idiots but still aren’t quite “smart” enough to figure out that most people are better off with fewer credit cards, not with yet another one.

The grades: The Danger Kitty ad blows. It’s unsurprising, and it’s not funny. I give it an F. The purse boot ad is slightly better but gets more tiresome with each viewing; I’ll give it a C-minus. Moreover, the promise of “spending management tools” at the end of these spots is weak: Just stop spending beyond your means because credit card balances are possibly the worst form of debt outside a pawn shop, OK? Anyway, I really enjoyed the hyena ad, which I think is easily the funniest of these ads, but that tag line and overall message—sometimes it pays to spend more—left me with distinct impression that the card carries an annual fee, but that the fee might somehow be worth it. It doesn’t carry a fee (I’ve been assured by Discover loyalists), so I don’t think that’s the message the company meant to send. C-plus.

Then there’s the emergency room ad. Sentiment among many who have e-mailed me about it runs somewhat negative or at least perplexed. I see the problem: Like other observers, I sort of can’t believe it’s on the air, but in my case I’m happy that it is. The ad is so crass, so squalid, and in such bad taste that I can’t help but enjoy it. It’s also the most knowing satire in the series of the actual culture of credit, in which card junkies (and it’s not a stretch to imagine this guy as representing a junkie of some sort) will do anything to get points or miles or rewards that are never worth even a tiny fraction of the overspending needed to achieve them. Whether intended or not, the ad speaks directly to credit hounds, saying hey, we understand you, and what you need is yet another card. That may not make for an effective personal financial strategy, but it does make for an effective ad. A-minus.