Ad Report Card

My Life. My Ad.

Wes Anderson’s brilliant new AmEx spot.

Wes Anderson in his American Express ad

The Spot: Director Wes Anderson ( Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic) takes us behind the scenes on his (fictional) new film as he shoots a sequence involving a car crash, a ballpoint pen, and a Panama hat. “Cut, cut, cut,” he yells, interrupting the action. “Not enough smoke and the snow was too loud.” As Anderson walks across the set, trying to describe for us what it’s like “makin’ movies,” he is interrupted by a series of comical directorial chores. In the end, as a camera crane lifts him into the sky, he tells us, “My life is about telling stories. My card is American Express.” (Click here to see the spot.)

Credit card advertising fascinates me. There could be no less interesting product—we’re talking about a small rectangle of plastic that eases financial transactions—and yet (or maybe as a result), the marketing campaigns are these expansive, abstract affairs. For example, the recent “Life Takes Visa” ads talk about “confidence,” “determination,” “joy,” and “spontaneity.” Which are not actually things I feel when I’m swiping my card at the grocery store.

This American Express campaign, which launched in late 2004, likewise features a vapid slogan (“My Life. My Card.”) that is somehow meant to ennoble consumer debt. The AmEx ads center on high-wattage celebrities—Tiger Woods, Ellen DeGeneres, Kate Winslet, Robert De Niro—and, like the Visa ads, make no attempt to distinguish the card in any tangible way. We don’t hear about interest rates or rewards programs. In fact, we don’t hear about the product at all, until the final few seconds when the celebrity reveals (a bit out of nowhere) that his or her card is American Express.

This super-soft-sell approach, in which the commercial’s narrative and its subsequent, nanosecond product pitch are discrete entities, can be dicey. De Niro’s spot is particularly grating. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the ad is a gorgeous little film about De Niro’s long love affair with New York City. There’s haunting Philip Glass music and even a couple of shots of Ground Zero as De Niro laments his “heartbreak.” The whole thing is quite moving—right up until the AmEx plug at the end, which, to me, desecrates all the genuine emotion that drove the rest of the spot. The idea that 9/11 angst could serve as fodder for a credit card ad seems a tad inappropriate. Maybe more than a tad.

No such problem with this new Wes Anderson spot. It doesn’t take itself seriously. All it desires is to charm and to entertain, and it does both splendidly. When divorcing the sales pitch from the plot results in wildly amusing clips like this one, I’m all for it.

A scene from the Wes Anderson AmEx commercial

I love the density of detail here. The version of the spot I’ve seen is two minutes long but has material enough for a 15-minute short. So many dry-yet-fanciful Andersonian moments, one after another: He asks for a mock-up of a .357 pistol with a bayonet attached … and the prop guy comes back with a drawing in about eight seconds. Anderson is told that the production can’t afford a $15,000 helicopter shot (I believe this actually happened during the filming of Rushmore), so he whips out his wallet, says he’ll pay for it himself, and asks his assistant to save the receipt (note that the sell is so soft that the ad doesn’t even bother to have him use his AmEx card here). Finally, as the spot closes, some pigeons fly past, and Anderson wonders, “Are those my birds? I need those.”

I’ve watched this ad at least 10 times and still haven’t quite grown bored with it. The brief, bounded format of a commercial plays to Anderson’s strengths and hides his weaknesses. No need to develop believable characters or to build organically motivated relationships between them (things Anderson has never managed to pull off in a film—though it may be he simply has no interest in them). Here he can just indulge his greatest talents: set pieces, art direction, whimsy, ironic bombast. There is no one more brilliantly entertaining than Wes Anderson when he’s doing what he does best, and with a two-minute leash he hasn’t time to do anything else. I only wish he’d make more commercials with his own sensibility and with himself in the lead role.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine Anderson as a spokesman for anything besides American Express. AmEx has carefully chosen its roster of high-toned celebrity endorsers. De Niro, Winslet, and Anderson are all top-tier objects of fascination for well-heeled consumers. They also—especially in the case of De Niro—tend not to show their faces just anywhere. Even Ellen DeGeneres, who appears on television every day, declines to give viewers much of a peek at her private side.

And that’s the real selling point of these AmEx ads. Here are these somewhat elusive stars we’d love to see more of, telling us all about “My Life” in their own words. Suggestion: If you get an AmEx card, perhaps the world will become fascinated by your life, too. AmEx helpfully nudges this notion along in one of its print ads: Next to a questionnaire where celebrities like Winslet fill in answers about themselves, in their own handwriting, AmEx prints a blank questionnaire where you, too, can tell us about your busy, glamorous existence.

Grade: A. I can’t complain when an ad is this much fun to watch. Several people have noted that Anderson is paying homage to François Truffaut’s classic film about filmmaking, Day for Night (even using the same music). But since Day for Night can’t be had on Amazon for less than about $60 right now, I guess we’ll take what we can get.

I also like (though not as much) the M. Night Shyamalan AmEx spot, in which the man behind The Sixth Sense and The Village nurses his coffee in a cafe and lets us see, through his eyes, the creepy world of his imagination. As with Anderson’s, this spot maximizes the director’s strengths (atmospheric foreboding) and minimizes his weaknesses (forehead-slapping plot twists). The two spots are part of what AmEx calls its “Directors’ Series,” and they’ve got me wondering who’ll come next (an AmEx spokesperson wouldn’t say). My money is on Scorsese, since they’ve worked with him before. But wouldn’t it be great to hear John Waters say, “My life is about excrement-eating transvestites. My card is American Express”?