Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Talk about timing. The morning after A Beautiful Mind swept the Oscars, an American Ex press ad featuring the duo who made the film—director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer—broke in magazines. It’s an Annie Leibovitz photo, her first work for AmEx since her acclaimed “Portraits” series of the late 1980s.

Instead of, say, capturing Ella Fitzgerald in flaming red, this time Leibovitz rocks on in newsier black-and-white. The composition is beautiful: The duo-of-the-moment, who produced a film about brilliance, sit in a classroom, literally putting their heads together (light-bulb moment!). Grazer (member since 1979) has his eyes closed and head down, all the better to show his own attempt at genius, the Einstein-in-Hollywood spiky coif. How ard (member since 1982) looks at the camera, trademark baseball cap covering his bald pate, his face conveying all the wry innocence of his Opie days.

It’s a knockout (plus, we get the excitement of the Oscars with none of the speeches). I wish I could say the same about the TV work, a major new branding campaign that also reunites star creatives on AmEx from a decade-plus ago. The spots are big and glossy, beautifully produced. The music is terrific. But the sensibility also seems to come from a decade ago.

“Anthem” offers a catchy tune about “freedom” and quick cuts of AmEx users around the world. It’s a generic global uplift, something AT&T might have done circa 1991. Perhaps it’s an attempt to recover some innocence by telling a simple story in rich, emotional images. But there’s a cloying romanticism about the imagery that feels fake, and gets grating.

This is especially true of “Crazy Love.” The music is great—Van Morrison himself sing ing his classic—and the cinematography is lush. But the sensibility comes out of some late-’80s, master-of-the-universe thinking, touched with ’90s-style political correctness. A young business guy runs up the stone steps of an Italian city, birds flying overhead. He thinks of his inamorata back home and buys a necklace, a delicate bird on a chain.

We then see him stuck in traffic on a narrow street—there’s a motorbike accident, complete with gestures and yelling. He gets on his cell to AmEx, worried that he’ll miss his plane, and a kindly woman on the other end arranges a new flight. All this rushing home for … a wedding, a funeral, a child in need? No, he just wants to get back to New York to proffer the necklace to his girlfriend.

Next we see him getting out of a cab, running up the steps of a tenement, where she is, yes!, teaching dance to inner-city children. Her hands are up in the air like a bird, then she cups them around the face of a little black girl. She has a light, graceful touch, as opposed to the heavy-handed sentiment. Obviously, we all want to move on from the worst year in travel history. But this hyper-romanticized storyline disregards how the politics, and reality, of travel have changed in the last six months.

Closer to the ground, “Wal den Press,” promoting financial services, shows a breezy, self-assured book editor who’s headed for a new job and packing up her great loftlike office. The actress has a delightful presence that bounces off the screen (she was the hilarious lesbian dog trainer in Best of Show). The music really zings, too—it’s James Taylor’s son Ben singing “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” And there are some nice connections between the copy and the music. The only really fake “addy” thing is that her AmEx adviser actually drops by to tell her in person that she’ll have no problem rolling over her 401(k). That’s service.

In “Employees,” AmEx workers in headphones express a devotion to their jobs that’s moving. The problem is that the actual b&w employee foot age is intercut with the staged color footage from other spots, dampening any sense of authenticity.

The tagline has been changed from “Do more” to “Make life rewarding.” I would humbly suggest, “Get real.”