William Shatner: Priceline’s ‘Negotiator’

SAN FRANCISCO Actor William Shatner, known for his comedic approach and hands-on style in his advertising gigs, has been the pitchman for Priceline.com for a decade.

The former Captain Kirk from Star Trek and current star of Boston Legal, Shatner, 76, became Priceline’s “Negotiator” after the brand switched agencies to Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners in November 2006.

The first round of ads launched in mid-January and by mid-March, traffic to Priceline.com had shot up 78 percent. With a characteristic wink and a smile, Shatner talks about advertising agencies, the new Priceline campaign, online media and a certain falcon.

Q: What’s your contribution to the Negotiator character?
A: Only as an actor interpreting the material in the script. Yeah, it’s fun making it into a character, something that gives more than what’s written on the page. I’m trying to be like a guy who will do anything to accomplish what he wants-in this case, getting a deal for you. But we didn’t want it to be too confrontational and a turnoff to people, so we made him a little soft-spoken. My own personality and the Negotiator’s are intermingled. Some people might see it as just me doing something different, and that’s OK, too.

Was the idea to tone down the Negotiator your idea or the agency’s?
I don’t care who gets credit. But if there’s any criticism, it’s their idea.

What’s it like working with BSSP?
They’re very young and imaginative. It’s a real pleasure to watch them do stuff that is typically avoided by ad agencies. They push the message harder than I’m accustomed to seeing done. With them it’s a question of “How far dare we go?” Heck, in one ad I’m zapping the customer, in another I’m seducing a young hotel clerk. In this group, I’m the cautious one. Strangely, I’m the voice of reason.

Shooting is done on a tight schedule. Does this create extra tension? What’s the mood on the set?
Sometimes they have to helicopter me from the airport to the shoot and then back. But the agency makes it a fun atmosphere and they’re open to ideas even when time is short. On one ad I’m showing my derision to a guy sitting at a computer using Priceline. The idea is to get the guy to negotiate harder. We were trying to come up with silly insults that came right up to the edge of what the FCC would approve. We all had fun inventing new words. They came up with some great ones that ended in the can because they’d never get approved.

Wasn’t there an incident with a falcon on one of the shoots?
It’s a spot where I’m holding the “falcon of truth” on my arm to drive a bargain with a clerk. I’m wearing an eye patch and the implication is that the falcon plucked my eye out. So we’re shooting at 3 a.m. and the falcon and I are both exhausted, but the falcon is more expressive about it. He starts screaming and dangling from the cord. Then there’s this anguished cry, but that was me. Anyway, I ended up treating it like a recalcitrant child and trying to amuse it. At one point I took off its hood and stared right at it, risking my face and my other eye. There’s a lot of drama going on in the shot you see in the ad.

What do you think makes an ad really resonate?
Imagination. You need a good concept, which is usually something funny. [You shouldn’t] depend just on the important selling message, you need to make the message stand out with a laugh line, something that people stand around the watercooler the next day and talk about. Sometimes you can use drama. The BMW films were very imaginative, but usually it’s something that’s really funny. The Super Bowl ads are a prime example. Everyone talks about them. Ads need to be little pieces of entertainment.

What do you think of the ads in general that are out there today?
So many are overwrought. You can only take seeing them a few times. It’s better if they’re understated and nuanced. When there are tiers of meaning in an ad it intrigues the audience and they look for it again and again.

You have a Web site, www.shatnervision.com, which includes video. Are you a fan of digital media?
My site has the whole thing-blogs, information, video interviews. My daughter, Lisabeth, talks to me and we bring a camera in and put the footage on the Web site. She’s a lawyer and an artist and we’re making use of her brain. We do it on the Web because the Internet seems to be the thing, isn’t it? It’s in vogue now. But I don’t admire [digital media] myself. It’s so cold and calculating. I see people putting text messages on the phone or computer and I think, “Why don’t you just call?”

In Boston Legal, the show always ends with your character Denny Crane sipping a scotch with Alan Shore [played by James Spader] on the balcony. What’s your preferred cocktail?
Hmm. I really don’t have a favorite cocktail. I’m fascinated by good wines, particularly a deep red.