A recent American Express Card ad is built around an unusual celebrity endorser: Martin Scorsese. Yes, he's made cameos in a number of films, from Taxi Driver to Gangs of New York, but we know him as a director, not an actor. And he's not playing a character, a la Spike Lee's Mars Blackmon in the famous Nike commercials. Scorsese is playing himself. Sort of.
In the spot—which you can see here, at an Amex site—Scorsese is standing at a drugstore counter, going through a batch of birthday-party photos he's just had developed. Talking rapid-fire, he's delivering a withering self-critique to the baffled clerk. "This one," he says, "it's far too nostalgic." He asks the clerk about one snapshot; the clerk says, "It's pretty." Perfectionist Scorsese stares back in disgust. "How could I have done this? I've lost the narrative thread." Muttering that he'll have to re-shoot, he buys more film with his Amex card. Stalking off, he cell-phones his nephew: "It's your Uncle Marty. How'd you like to turn 5 again?"
So what Scorsese is doing is playing himself as a control freak. That's his reputation, and it's a funny ad. But of course what he's really doing is playing a guy who has a sense of humor about his reputation as a control freak. This is often the case when celebrity pitchpeople, particularly those who aren't full-time actors by trade, show up in ads: They play up whatever trait they're famous for (think of Yogi Berra, ever-befuddled), or they play on their public image by going outrageously against type (like a touchy-feely Bobby Knight in a Minute Maid ad from a couple of years ago). Either way, the point is to humanize the spokesperson by having fun with his or her reputation. Only those who are properly self-deprecating would be willing to play cartoonish versions of themselves. Right?
Amusingly, Advertising Age recently noted that before the real-life Scorsese would agree to be in the spot, he demanded to see and approve a reel of work by the ad's director, Jim Jenkins. Happily for Jenkins, his résumé passed muster. Obviously this anecdote takes nothing away from Scorsese's performance—in fact, it enhances it. It's much harder to convincingly lampoon your image as a pushy control freak when you really are a pushy control freak.
In the Ad Age piece, Jenkins recounted visiting Scorsese to talk about the ad in the latter's suite at the Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica, Calif., joking that its bathroom was about the size of his own room at another hotel. "But," Jenkins added, "he really is the self-deprecating character that he plays in the commercial." Wait a minute—the character in the ad isn't self-deprecating at all. Hmm. Maybe Jenkins misspoke. Or maybe not.
Update: A few weeks back I wrote a column about the efforts of Dr Pepper/7Up to market a new milk drink called Raging Cow through stealthy Web sites. In response, reader Dan Kois draws my attention to Cool 2B Real. This colorful site seems to be aimed at teenage girls—as the copy puts it, "real girls like you!" There are various contests, chat features, and the like. And an area labeled "Keepin' It Real" says, "Make snacks with your friends and get some real energy with fitness tips." Clicking along, we find snack suggestions such as "a tortilla wrap with slices of lean roast beef ... ," "a barbecue beef sandwich ... ," and "An English muffin pizza with ground beef crumbles." And, scrolling to the very bottom of the page, we find the words "Funded by America's Beef Producers." Insert your own joke about raging cows and beef consumption here—and remember to keep it real.