Still ‘Priceless’ After All These Years

A lesson between a father and son, this latest MasterCard spot offers a mini-tutorial in eco-awareness that doesn’t come off as the least bit phony, stagey or preachy. Au contraire, it feels fresh and surprising, with an unexpected look and a sweet, human story.

Given all this eye- and ear-pleasing newness (hard to do after 250 or so iterations of the “Priceless” campaign and countless parodies), I have to admit that I was somewhat chagrined to discover that, like the art of sophisticated scarf-knotting and the original Conehead family on the early Saturday Night Live, this spot comes from France.

Now I get why the dad was allowed to be so edgy and shaggy. And why the water glass, sitting on the lip of the tiny, old-fashioned sink, is an actual glass, not a kid-proof plastic tumbler. And why even the store selling the lightbulbs looks so good. But before I get all aesthetically pretentious, let’s go to the tape.

“Lessons” opens with a man (let’s call him Shaggy Dad) brushing his teeth at the bathroom sink with the water running. His son, who sports his own head of curls and an adorable face, silently shuts off the faucet after he fills up a glass. (“Water glass, $5,” Mr. Announcer says.) We never see Dad spit. Instead, on we go, to purchase “Energy saving light bulbs, $4” and a “Reusable grocery bag, $2.” What’s “Priceless” is also unexpected: “Helping your dad become a better man.” (That line was slightly rewritten by McCann New York to make it more colloquial.)

Certainly, for clients of big global agencies, that’s the dream — to have a campaign structure that’s elastic enough to fit international markets so that, like Obama’s latest diplomacy, we can adapt to other cultures, and not just export our own oversized solutions. This ad works with just a translation of the voiceover and touch up in the last line.

It’s a nice bookend to the first “Priceless” spot (the campaign was created by McCann New York in 1997) that featured father-and-son baseball fans visiting every ballpark together. In addition to the genius format, which allows for endless flexibility, what knocked it out of the park (so to speak) for a credit-card campaign back then was the then-revolutionary understanding that what you buy is just stuff — what’s priceless is your experience. That idea resonates more in this economy than ever.

In “Lessons,” we get a reversal — with the next generation leading the way. Greenwise, that’s the way it is (with Europe, by necessity, being ahead of us). But it doesn’t come off as greenwashing. MasterCard is not setting itself up as a paragon of eco-consciousness. “Lessons” just offers an enjoyable human moment.

It proves the world is flat, and that families are families. Even though I’ve been to France many times, without seeing this ad, I would have pictured it as a total cliché and stereotype — maybe not a mime in a striped top and beret, on a bicycle with his son and a loaf of bread sticking out the back, but maybe a tired, middle-aged functionary-type dad in a suit hitting the kid, who’s in a schoolboy uniform, on the head because he doesn’t want his kid to teach him anything.
So, like that sweet and knowing Coca-Cola spot from Spain — featuring the ancient guy visiting his granddaughter and her baby, telling us he’s seen tough times before and that we’ll be OK — “Lessons” proves we all have a lot to learn.