Creative: Inside Priceless MasterCard Moments

Debuting in October 1997, MasterCard’s “Priceless” theme has become one of the industry’s most admired campaigns, creating an almost nonstop buzz. What’s more, it’s working. Not only did the work raise viewer awareness and consumer usage of the card itself, it also served as a milestone for McCann-Erickson. As the agency brought luster and polish to the dusty brand, “Priceless” helped the once-staid shop trumpet a new and improved creative reputation. What follows is a look inside the venerable campaign, from the brief to the on-air product and beyond, by Adweek’s senior reporter Hank Kim.
The Brief
MasterCard puts its account in review in March 1997. “The top-line mandate in the search was we wanted to have a long-term positioning and an idea that connected with consumers,” says Larry Flanagan, MasterCard’s vice president of advertising. The client felt the previous campaign, “Smart Money,” from Ammirati Puris Lintas, was too focused on benefits and lacked emotional resonance. “None of us had been with MasterCard long at the time of the review, and none of us could remember what the current MasterCard advertising was,” says Debra Coughlin, senior vice president, global advertising and marketing services. The finalists, Leo Burnett, GSD&M, Grey Advertising, Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG as well as McCann, were instructed to treat cash and checks as competition, not just rival credit cards.
The Insight
“From our perspective, we considered it a travesty that you could use your MasterCard wherever you could use your Visa– and in more places around the world. But Visa was it and MasterCard was just another card. That, in a way, was the perfect problem and thus, the perfect challenge,” says Eric Einhorn, McCann’s head of strategic planning, who was supported by Nat Puccio and Suresh Nair.
“Visa was the aspirational, globe-trotting card, and MasterCard was the everyday, hardware-store card. We needed to take the ordinariness of the card and glorify it,” adds Jonathan Cranin, executive creative director of McCann North America, who, along with Joyce King Thomas, deputy creative director, led the creative effort.
The Strategy
“We concentrated first and foremost in finding that emotional space, which had to be distinctive,” notes Einhorn. During the typical nerve-shattering brainstorming sessions, with wastebaskets overflowing with aborted ideas, Cranin devised the line, “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.” King Thomas then came up with the “shopping list” approach over the weekend with art director Jeroen Bours, whereby the
dollar costs of hot dogs and tickets at a baseball game are rattled off in captions, while the voiceover leads up to the payoff line, “Real conversation with 11-year-old son: priceless.” It closes with the MasterCard logo and the tagline.
“Fundamentally, ‘Priceless’ is a bit of a goody-two-shoes idea, but it was expressed in a poetic way, and that sense of goodness was elevated,” says Einhorn. The backup idea actually renamed the card in a vignette about the first time a little girl goes to camp. “What it didn’t have was the handle or the hook,” says King Thomas.
Thomas points out the spot had to ring true or else it could be deemed manipulative or sappy by the consumer. “This kind of work can easily slip into bad Hallmark advertising,” agrees Coughlin.
The Pitch
McCann presented the client with “oversized storybooks” encased in blue velvet. The father-and-son baseball spot was presented as a rough cut with a music track. Footage from the Robert DeNiro film The Fan was used. McCann had hit the ball out of the park. “Without naming names, there were a few tears at the presentation,” says Cranin. “It was choreographed beautifully,” adds Coughlin. “Joyce took us through the work, and she had such passion for it.” As a part of the dog-and-pony show, McCann ran a clip from a focus group, which showed consumers poignantly responding, including big, husky guys admitting that it touched them.
“A lot of the other agencies’ ideas were in this same territory, but they still ended with the transaction, whereas ‘Priceless’ incorporates the transaction as part of an experience that is far greater,” says Flanagan.
The Results
The client is impressed. Tracking studies show that mothers respond to the baseball spot by saying they wish their husbands had the same level of closeness with their sons. The family-reunion spot has made people want to spend more time with loved ones.
“One thing we were worried about was that people would think we were telling them they would have to spend money to have a close relationship. But that hasn’t come up,” says King Thomas.
The emotional response is translating into business. From 1997 to 1998, purchase volume for MasterCard jumped 16 percent to approximately $236 billion, keeping pace with Visa (which it had been lagging behind), while American Express was up 10 percent, according to The Nilson Report. “This campaign talks about a core element in our lives–the desire to have control to allow us to enjoy our lives,” says Nick Utton, senior vice president of marketing at MasterCard. The campaign now runs in every major market around the world with cultural tweaks to help it cross borders. For example, the father-and-son baseball spot was reworked with a cricket match for the Australian market.
The Buzz
The campaign has created a stir in the production community. A-list directors, such as Tony Kaye and Tarsem, have all taken turns lensing commercials. Irish feature filmmaker Jim Sheridan, the acclaimed director of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, made his commercial debut with the mother-and-daughter-goes-to-Ireland spot. “We get calls from production companies all the time saying so and so would love to do it,” says Cranin. “It’s even become a negotiating tool for us with directors.”
“It’s a very director-driven campaign in terms of production,” adds Ralf Schmerberg, who lensed one of the spots through Perhaps a more telling indication of its impact is the way the campaign has seeped into the culture. Everyone from Jay Leno and David Letterman to the crew at Saturday Night Live have parodied the work. Letterman had a field day with it, lampooning the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. He ended his spoof of the Starr Report with the tagline, “Impeaching the President’s fat, guilty ass: priceless.”
The Future
“We told the board we’d like to keep this campaign for 10 years,” says Utton. The client believes that with the numerous consumer segments the card addresses, it can use the rigid format of the “shopping list” to its advantage, since the campaign is still in its embryonic stage. Both client and agency are concerned with maintaining the freshness of the executions. “We have to be vigilant about being intellectually honest because the consumer is voting all the time,” says Utton.
Card Sharks
Joyce King Thomas – Deputy Creative Director, N.Y.
“When I go to family weddings, I’m a folk hero because of this campaign,” says King Thomas. The 42-year-old began her ad career in 1984 at Young & Rubicam and has worked at only one other agency to date, the former Wells Rich Greene. Indeed, it was Cranin who brought her to Wells, where she picked up experience in the category, having worked on Chase. Her rƒsumƒ also includes work for IBM, Pan Am and Jell-O. King Thomas, who studied journalism at the University of Missouri, says her affable personality may be misleading. “I’m tougher than I seem, and he’s softer than he seems,” she says of longtime friend Cranin.
Jonathan Cranin – Exec. CD North America
Cranin gets similar celebrity treatment at family functions. He recently attended a 90th birthday party and was surprised by the reaction to the work. “I couldn’t believe these old guys really loved the campaign.” The 44-year-old, high-energy, former tennis pro from Long Island provided the campaign’s tagline, “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.” Nina DiSesa, McCann’s chief creative officer, says the two writers are more collaborative than competitive and work seamlessly together. “When Jonathan volunteered the line to Joyce, that was when I knew the agency was going to make it,” she says.