Critique: MasterCard’s Magic Moment

NEW YORK “Ella Phant,” one of two new MasterCard spots that broke last night on the Academy Awards, is the kind of sweet, sweeping, cinematic commercial that was so lacking at this year’s Super Bowl—and so perfect for the Oscars.

It’s got emotion, magic, an animal theme—and against my most cynical judgment, I loved it. But I must say that the establishing shot comes off as a bit dodgy, considering this 60-second mini-movie is directed by Jim Sheridan (In America, In the Name of the Father, My Left Foot).

The spot opens on a zookeeper grooming his elephant, who stands in front of rocks that look disturbingly fake. Also it’s pretty easy to understand that the zookeeper has a cold-the 400 sneezes seem kind of excessive. From there, however, the mystical fairy-tale-in-a-modern world vibe that is so difficult to convey (and at which Sheridan excels) kicks in, and the spot, a funny fable involving a deli/convenience store, is hard to resist.

First of all, who can oppose an elephant so devoted to her master that she leaves her comfortable 19th century zoo-like country home to walk the aisles of a 7/11? From there, the familiar voiceover explains her purchases (“Hot soup: $4,” “Cold Medicine: $11…”).

Once she’s gathered up all her Florence Nightingale-style supplies (that she carries in her trunk in a green plastic store basket, which is irresistibly cute) she goes to the counter to pay. All she has to do is tap with her MasterCard Pay pass—and that pachyderm is out of there.

The greatest moment is at the very end, when our elephant tends to the zookeeper through the open window of his cozy stone cottage (the real estate resembles Hagrid’s home in Harry Potter.) After passing along all the cold fixin’s and “making it all better: priceless,” she pats the keeper’s head with her trunk, and it’s hilarious and moving at the same time. For further fairy tale details, there’s a monkey who accompanies the zookeeper and ends up next to his club chair, throwing tissues everywhere.

The tissues are a nice touch, as the spot will actually bring a tear to some eyes. That’s pretty good for a souped-up product demo-the point is to show how easy it is to tap with the Pay pass.

In promoting its own ease-of-use demo, Visa has a similarly clever, blown-out production number in a spot showing a perfectly choreographed, lightning quick line of cafeteria diners, each carrying a tray and paying with their Visa cards. The minute a guy comes along with cash, however, he gums up the works. It’s also a big, beautifully produced spot, and I like it. But I’ve heard objections to it: people resist being mechanized, presented as cogs in a wheel for the big bad card company.

Whereas “Ella Phant” is as human as it gets. Hard to believe, but after 10 years, “Priceless” still has legs, and in this case, we get four giant lumbering ones that really connect.

MasterCard:

Agency: McCann Erickson, New York

Chief creative officer: Joyce King Thomas

Art director: Kathy Kuhn

Copywriter: Lisa Brandriff

Producer: Julie Andariese

Music producer: Mike Boris

Director: Jim Sheridan

Production company: Moxie Pictures, Los Angeles

Executive producer: Lizzie Schwartz

Director of photography: Phillipe Rousselot

Editor: Jon Grover, Cut + Run, New York

Visual FX: Ring of Fire, Los Angeles

Music: Musikvergnuegen, Los Angeles