The spot: In a short film available solely on the Web (www.americanexpress.com/jerry), Jerry Seinfeld loafs around with his good buddy Superman. They nosh at a diner, take in a Broadway show, and (briefly and distractedly) fight crime. The product pitch, for American Express cards, is almost an afterthought.
First they make you go on the Web to see it. Then they make the sell so soft that it's hardly even there. Seinfeld alludes to his AmEx card—and its purchase-protection plan—for a total of about three seconds, toward the end of the five-minute clip. He never once utters the words "credit card" or "American Express." Which makes us wonder: Why would AmEx spend millions to create an ad that's not really an ad?
For years, we've been hearing about the coming revolution in ads. TiVo will kill the 30-second spot, blah blah blah. Product placements invading novels and video games, blah blah. No doubt this has been talked to death, but it's still a real challenge for the marketing departments: How do we grab consumer attention when our trusty old tricks seem a little too old and not all that trusty?
The answer—to pretty much anything you ask about advertising these days—is "branded entertainment," which basically just boils down to increasing the insidiousness of product placement. For instance, see this report from AdAge.com on the latest branded entertainment push: "A growing number of marketers want to persuade the nation's print magazines to open the text of their editorial pages to product placements." The Ad Age author is sort of disturbingly bright-eyed about the whole thing. But looking for new ways to promote products makes sense. The enduring weakness with most product placements is that the placers have no control over the surrounding content. What if the sitcom you place your product in turns out to be unacceptably wack, or (worse) offends your target market?
Here's where the Seinfeld "Webisode" comes in. It takes precisely the opposite tack: Instead of deftly slipping a placement into somebody else's content, AmEx just built its own content—featuring Jerry Seinfeld, no less—around a product placement. It thereby seizes complete control over both quality and tone.
And as for the quality and tone, well, they're pretty good. The Webisode is funny—not a masterpiece by any means, but worth the time it takes to download. Barry Levinson (Diner, Wag the Dog) has a knack for directing laid-back banter. We're treated to several helpings of that trademark Seinfeld humor-of-the-quotidian, which we've all come to know and sometimes enjoy. For instance, Superman gives his name as "Man of Steel" when he makes dinner reservations, so as not to get a table by the kitchen. He uses his cape as a napkin when he wipes his mouth, because it's "impervious to stain." The whole thing—with its brew of animated superhero, live-action celebrity, and fiercely mundane conversation topics—owes a lot to Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, a late-night Cartoon Network favorite.
Marketing-wise, the point of the Webisode is not so much to convince you of the AmEx card's superior purchase-protection service (though that's of course a side benefit) but rather to create a little piece of entertainment so attractive that it draws you to the AmEx Web site. (And stirs you to send your friends there, too.) Because driving consumers to the site is hugely more valuable than showing them ads on TV. A spot, if it's going to get you to sign up for the card, must prod you into calling an 800 number or going online. If you're already online at the AmEx site for the Seinfeld short, you're just a single (prominent) click away from signing up right then and there. In other words, the battle's half won. (And I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot more non-TV stuff from AmEx down the road: In 1994, they spent 80 percent of their ad money on TV; in 1998, it was 50 percent; and in 2003, only 35 percent.)
We used to think product placement would ruin all entertainment, cluttering movies and books with superfluous branding moments. But Webisodes like this suggest an alternative: It seems possible that the trend might actually spur some new and decent entertainment.
This is not a wholly new concept. The immediate precursor to the AmEx Webisodes is a 2001 series of BMW Web films, which were skillfully directed by talents such as John Frankenheimer and Ang Lee—product placement as genuine art. But when you think about it, the idea goes back to the very first soap operas, radio shows sponsored by soap companies who tightly controlled the narrative thrust (in ways that somehow managed, if only indirectly, to urge housewives to buy more soap). What's the difference between the AmEx short and the old-time radio soaps? Not much—except for the Web and its ability to put the product at the audience's fingertips while they enjoy the show. If the old soaps had played on radios in the cleaning products aisle of the local supermarket … well, they might have been on to something.
Grade: B+. Entertaining, perhaps a sign of things to come.