The End of a Played-Out Ad Campaign?
The Spot: We see a man in an open green field, sitting at a desk with an old-fashioned typewriter. The announcer says, "Blank. Nine dollars." Then a woman on a motorcycle rides into view. "Blank. Sixty dollars." Eventually, the man hops on the back of the bike and they zoom away down an empty road together, smiling. "Blank," says the announcer. "Priceless." (Click here to watch the ad.)
MasterCard's "Priceless" campaign has now endured through nine years and 160-odd commercials. It has incorporated semi-celebrities (NFL quarterback Peyton Manning), former celebrities (Richard Dean Anderson, aka MacGyver), and nonexistent celebrities (the Jolly Green Giant, the Vlasic Pickles stork, Count Chocula). It has even cracked an inside joke: Last year the long-running voice of the campaign, actor Billy Crudup, finally showed his face in an ad—appearing as a gas station attendant.
Now, at last, MasterCard reaches the inevitable endpoint: They've reduced the whole campaign to an empty template.
This new ad, which debuted during the Academy Awards telecast, invites you to visit a Web site where you can fill in Crudup's blanks on your own. You can have a go at this motorcycle spot, or instead try your hand at a second unfinished ad showing a man who receives a letter and then jumps off a sailboat. You have until May 28 to enter, and one winning entry will be broadcast later this year.
These now-familiar Priceless ads obviously lend themselves to a contest like this. With those three setup beats, and a punch line you can see coming for miles, the campaign is a classic bit of joke scaffolding—akin to the old priest/pastor/rabbi formula. But MasterCard is a little late to the party: Pranksters have been repurposing the Priceless shtick for years now. Fake Priceless ads still abound on the Internet, most of them featuring mildly raunchy photos and a kicker along the lines of "Exposing your nipple in your yearbook picture: Priceless" or "Picking your nose on national television: Priceless." The gag is played out at this point.
Of course, MasterCard hopes to draw less on this proud tradition than on, I would guess, the popularity of The New Yorker's cartoon caption contest—a similar ploy designed to forge an interactive relationship with an audience. MasterCard's goal here is to drive traffic to its new Web site, Priceless.com. In that respect, I think the ad's a success. (Certainly much more so than this ad for the movie download site Vongo.com (click "Part One"), which is so boring that it seems unlikely to make anyone visit the site, and also so vague and devoid of hints that the people it does sucker in might well find, upon getting there, that they have no interest whatsoever in the product.)
As for the Priceless.com site itself, it features four different categories: 1) credit card offers; 2) special deals and promotions; 3) a section devoted to the Priceless ads themselves; and 4) a sort of Web magazine about food, clothes, music, and travel. These categories make sense to me in descending order. Sure, it's a great idea to lure us to a site where we can apply for new credit cards online. But why should we trust MasterCard's tips on Rome vacations or music festivals or restaurants in Colorado? Isn't this a function better served by actual travel magazines? And, in terms of the bottom line, are these puffy lifestyle articles really an effective marketing tool for MasterCard? I suppose the company's overarching goal is to have us spend lots of money on travel and dining out and such (preferably using its cards, of course), but this odd and unfocused Webzine seems like an overly broad approach.
Grade: B+. A fun contest, but this really does signal the end of the Priceless campaign's natural life span. There's nothing left to do. It was great while it lasted, but I hope they'll move on before the conceit gets horribly stale.
By the way, as of this writing, the contest site still allows you to enter naughty words in the blanks and will then plug those words into a new rough cut of the ad. I got a juvenile thrill from seeing "Dildo: $9" superimposed on that high-budget, cinematographically perfect scene of the man in the open field. But since the motorcycle ad was directed by Stephen Gaghan (of Traffic and Syriana fame), you may want to transform it into some sort of left-leaning, wide-sweeping social drama. "Mind-blowing realization that our daily lives both intertwine with and enable a shadow-world built on oil, illicit drugs, and clandestine diplomacy-by-violence: Priceless." See if that one wins.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.