They've collaborated on some of the greatest movies ever—Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas. So it's something of a shock to hear Robert De Niro's voice and then see him—long coat, cheek mole, signature squint—walking along many of those same New York streets, shot with similar depth, texture and expressiveness by Martin Scorsese ... for American Express?
How do you get Scorsese and De Niro (Marty and Bob, as we like to call them) to do a little commercial for you? Relationships, relationships. AmEx is the founding sponsor of the Tribeca Film Festival and has worked with Scorsese on the Statue of Liberty reopening project.
If you recall, the director starred in one of the funniest commercials of last year, promoting AmEx as the "official card of the Tribeca Film Festival." Here was Herr Direktor, walking into the basement of a drugstore, with its hideous ceiling and bad fluorescent lighting, to pick up a packet of 24-hour photos. "I've lost the narrative thread!" he says while reviewing the snapshots of his nephew's 5th birthday party. "The pony doesn't read!" He decides to reshoot. The point about his nonstop perfectionism and passion was made breezily, and the use of the card was subtle.
This spot is much bigger and quite different. The De Niro voiceover matched to exquisite city shots (as moving as any of the famous photos by Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott, Brassai, Walker Evans, etc.) and a sometimes soaring, sometimes chilling score by Philip Glass packs an emotional wallop.
It opens with the voices and images of immigrants and an amazingly expressive shot of a shoe. Every shot "reads," because New York obviously means so much to both men. In the 60-second version, De Niro mentions "my oldest friend," and there's a split-second shot of Scorsese, which is cool. Among the other things he mentions ("my private side"), we get a glimpse of some of his father's paintings, another heavy but intoxicating series of pictures. In the end, he gets to "my heartbreak, my heartbeat"—a shot of the raw chain-link fence surrounding Ground Zero, then the Tribeca Film Festival in full throb. (The festival was born out of the ashes of 9/11, and De Niro was just named one of the fundraisers for a 9/11 memorial.) It's all tastefully and exquisitely done.
But after the most beautiful 28 and 58 seconds ever put on television, the tag—"My life happens here. My card is American Express," along with DeNiro's signature —feels forced and tacked on; it's an abrupt change of tone. Had a voiceover plugged the film festival or something about the company's charitable undertakings, the whole package might not seem to come to such a sudden halt.
This is the stuff he cares about, so it's fine that it's represented; but there isn't any meaningful link to the "My life. My card" ending. No card is shown, because following the recent opening of the AmEx network to banks in the U.S., the campaign is an umbrella and supports all AmEx-branded cards. But that's not at all clear, which is probably for the best. (Ground Zero to MBNA in a matter of seconds? I don't think so.) The spot will no doubt work better globally, where these guys, and their vision and voices, do offer the world's definitive picture of New York, and AmEx would seem a reasonable sponsor.
To De Niro's dark and brooding yin, Ellen DeGeneres is the light and fluffy yang. Fun, entertaining and lighthearted, her spot picks up on the most memorable part of her new talk show—her opening dance number. To all sorts of music (rap, salsa, disco) she dances her way out of bed and through Los Angeles to the studio. (At one point she hops in an elevator, and the scowl on a fellow rider's face as Ellen gets down and let's go is, pardon the expression, priceless.)
But the spot has the same problem with the tacked-on tag. "My life is about dancing to my own tune," she says. Ugh. Still, it's a wonderful Ellen promo, and could be selling anything from her show to her shoes. (The print ad, shot by Annie Leibovitz, showing her playing cards at a 1950s kitchen table, with a dog, is a perfect piece of AmEx work.)
The spots starring surfer superman Laird Hamilton are, like his extreme sport, fast and exciting—as engulfing a tsunami. Strangely enough, these ads, featuring the least known of the three spokespeople, are the ones with the most coherent marketing message. The first uses the same framework as De Niro's. "My sherpa, my Everest," Hamilton says over surfing pictures. In the second, he just talks to the camera about his injuries (I didn't even know you could break an arch). The spots are alive, and he just jumps off the screen; the signature part at the end is a clever graphic that mimics a wave, which ties in the tag nicely.
There will be more print ads by Leibovitz, and there's a fun site (mycardmylife.com) where you can mess around inside the (digital) lives of Laird and Ellen. Meanwhile, talk about an umbrella that absorbs dark and light.
Ogilvy & Mather, New York
Executive creative director
Chris Mitton, John Liegey
Don King/Bam Man Production
"Robert De Niro"