Perspective: Check, Please

Dining out isn't what it used to be—nor are Americans' attitudes about using plastic

Glance at the 1979 ad below, and two things become apparent, one immediate and the other less so. First is that the legendary Windows on the World restaurant—once perched on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower—is no longer with us. More on that in a moment. Now for the other fact, startling in a different way: In the late 1970s, according to data from the Federal Reserve, only 63 percent of Americans owned a credit card. Today, close to 80 percent of us do—and most people carry more than one.

But if you want another indication of how consumer attitudes toward credit have changed, just look at the 2012 ad, opposite. “Right off the bat you can see the contrast,” said Ron Shevlin, senior analyst with Boston-based financial-services research firm Aite Group. “The 1979 ad is about impressing the establishment. The new ad is about screwing it.”

When Diner’s Club (the first consumer charge card) put together this ad in 1979, its choice of Windows on the World was no accident. Opened in 1976, the eatery was, even in the haughty view of New York magazine, “the most spectacular restaurant in the world.” Windows served its mignonettes of veal with crayfish sauce at 1,310 feet up. Its views were as staggering as its prices ($16.50 prix fixe—that’s $69 now, sans wine and tip). For VIPs, there were valets and even masseurs; for everyone else, a reservation wait that stretched for months.

Hence, at a time when simply owning a credit card, any credit card, conferred a degree of prestige, Diner’s Club placed its brand on the right side of the velvet rope with this ad. “Back then, it was about being part of the club,” Shevlin said. “They wanted to associate the card with being elite—and Windows on the World was an elitist restaurant.” The most elitist, perhaps.

In the 33 years that separate these ads, much has changed. The loss of Windows (which is to say the loss of 72 employees and 87 guests inside it on Sept. 11) overshadows all else—and rightfully so. Yet in a business light, it’s also hard to imagine a credit card company today creating an ad themed like the one featuring that grand culinary aerie. Casual dress codes have taken over at even the finest restaurants. Corporate meals that were fully tax deductible back in 1979 are, today, only 50 percent so—curtailing the lavish expense account dinners of yore. But the biggest cultural shift concerns the role of the credit card itself. Today there’s little point in marketing it as a status symbol because just about everybody’s got one.

“To a growing percentage of the population, the credit card is nothing more than a payment card,” Shevlin said. “You used to use it only for high-ticket items or special occasions, but now people use their cards for everything.” Including eating out—that hasn’t changed. But the restaurant pictured in the ad for Chase’s Sapphire card is a bistro, not a Windows on the World. The pitch isn’t about how to get a table, but how to “cheat” the house by nabbing extra purchase points—in other words, Chase’s ad is a plea to consumers just to take the card. Back in 1979, you were lucky to get accepted for one.

One other part of the credit scene has changed since 1979. Most Americans back then paid their balances in full each month. Today they’re $2.5 trillion in credit card debt. That’s a lot of appetizers.