The plastic universe

The making of the newest MasterCard commercials has not been nearly as exciting as say, the making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. This isn’t Jurassic Park we’re talking about here. It’s not even Knight Rider, We don’t have any dancing beer bottles or talking fingers or animatronic sheep.
What we do have is a campaign that tries to differentiate a product in a category that doesn’t have what you would call a gaping chasm of difference. But it seems enough people have noticed the campaign, considering supermarket use of MasterCard jumped about $200 million in the first quarter of this year. So welcome to the wonderful world of the MasterCard creative team. We hope you enjoy your stay with us. You must be three feet tall to ride this ride.
To start, making a MasterCard commercial requires the following ingredients:
1. One copywriter. We suggest Adam Goldstein, 26-year-old Potomac, Md., native and son of two psychotherapists (which should explain something). You may, however, opt to go with someone who is not currently giving serious thought to joining the Hair Club for Men.
2. One art director. Harvey Marco, who prides himself on getting invited to every party ever held in Laguna Beach, Calif., but only actually attending three, is an excellent choice, so long as you have some warm chamomile tea, earmuffs and a phone book or two for him to sit on.
3. Two assorted creative directors. Brent “Don’t call me Miles Drentell” Bouchez should do nicely. He’s a a cross between Lee Clow and Donny Deutsch, but with more clothes. And David “What, no nickname?” Page, who, despite his uncanny resemblance to Fozzie Bear, adds a nice San Franciscan flavor.
4. Several account people. These are like dietary fiber. You don’t want it, but it can actually be good for you.
You will also need assorted meetings, presentations, focus groups and frantic late-night phone calls. These can be bought in bulk at any warehouse store and should be sprinkled liberally throughout the prime summer months, so as to avoid exposing the creatives to the sun’s harmful rays.
The other thing you need is a strategy. Credit cards have been sold for so long as passports to some absurdly fantastic “good life” where you jaunt off at lunch for Tahiti and say, “Screw the luggage, we’ll just charge a whole new wardrobe when we get there!” We took the premise that a credit card is nothing but a piece of plastic that people use to buy things and do things and basically just deal with things. It’s a tool. So it follows that people ought to choose a credit card the way they would choose any other tool. After all, you pick a ball-peen hammer based on how well it hammers. You should pick a credit card based on how well it does credit card things.
Starting from that point, we went through all the post-’80s machinations about honesty and just coming out and saying that a credit card won’t make you prettier or smarter or more popular. And then it occurred to us that if you used it right, maybe it would do those things, after all. MasterCard is accepted at 62 cajillion places around the world, so if you used it to get a new haircut or a chemical peel or a makeover or liposuction, it could make you better looking.
In any case, once you’ve got the strategy, the idea and a minivan full of scripts, you need a voiceover that can carry it off. (You also need a lot of stuff in between, but it’s boring, so we won’t go into it.)
We went with Rob Morrow, Northern Exposure’s Dr. Joel Fleischman. Rob really understood the attitude. In fact, he delivers the scripts so naturally that people are always asking us how much involvement he has in the spots. He reads them. That’s it. Adam writes them and Harvey art directs them (David Page art directed the first ones) and Brent and David protect them and fight for them. Then we all join hands and sing “The Pina Colada Song.” So while Rob Morrow is the perfect voice and an excellent actor and a nice guy to boot, he doesn’t have any creative input. We give all the creative input to the people in focus groups.
Ahh, focus groups. (The closest you can get to clumps of wet, chafing, abrasive sand in your crotch without actually going to the beach.) After slaving until all hours writing and drawing and revising until you have the spots just right, it’s time to fly to St. Louis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, etc., to see what car salesmen and housewives and whoever else we can tempt with a sandwich and 50 bucks think of them. Very often, you will learn something you did not know before. For instance (we are not making this up): “The commercial is saying that now you can use the MasterCard in a lot of places you never could before, like, for instance, uh, at the store.” Or, “The main idea is that MasterCard is the most accepted card on any planet.” But there are good moments to testing, too. Sometimes people really do tell you something you didn’t know. And then there was the time when everyone in the group rated one spot a five (on a scale of one to five, one being it sucked). It’s not like these people are One Show judges, but after three days sitting in a dimly lit room eating stale pretzels, you take what you can get.
Once we get through testing and make the necessary revisions, it’s time to produce. So it’s off to the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles, America’s advertising dormitory, for about a month. Or alternatively, as happened when we shot the supermarket spot, a week in the Mexican “Fawlty Towers” with a Victoria’s Secret model. On this latest production, Brent, David, Harvey and Susan “Zagat Guide” Shipman spent six weeks straight in L.A.
Like the first set of four spots, Mark Coppos shot these latest two. Mark is unique as a director in that he can deal with the creatives and the client without swearing excessively. But it’s a little known fact that the hand holding the card in each spot is Mark’s, and he actually had his knuckles specially shaved for the part.
Take all of this, toss it into stage five at Raleigh studios, shake well and you’ve got a good idea of how we make our MasterCard commercials. When you see them, we hope you like them. At the very least, we hope you don’t get that look on your face that you get when you bite into a piece of candy out of a Whitman’s Sampler and you think it’s caramel but it turns out it’s creamed coconut and you hold it in your mouth trying to keep it from actually touching your taste buds while you look for a napkin or something to spit it out in.
If you do get that look, just do us one favor: Stay away from our focus groups..
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)