How Financial Institutions Bank on the Super Bowl

December 1, 2006

American Express, Visa, and MastercardAmerican Express
In the 1960s, long before we carried around eight to ten credit cards and debit cards weren't yet invented, the purveyors of plastic had discovered the big game. American Express was first with its "Do you know me?" and "Don't leave home without them" campaigns. High achievers whose names were often better known than their faces would recount an exploit, ("I was the first man to climb Mount Everest,") state a problem, ("I still forget to change my dollars into dinars before going to Nepal"), then explain why they carry the card (It's recognized around the world.) At the end of each spot an Amex card appeared bearing the name of its semi-famous holder.

As the campaign evolved, the card promised membership in an elite society. Violinist Ithzak Perlman compared it to using a Stradivarius and horror novelist Stephen King, from a haunted house, noted that "without it, isn't life a little scary?"

A concurrent Amex campaign also played up fear-and turned its travelers' checks into worldwide currency by showing victimized tourists unable to get help unless their checks were from Amex. Actor Karl Malden, the hard-bitten detective Mike Stone from "The Streets of San Francisco" in his trademark fedora warned people of the horrors in store if they left home without them.

In Super Bowl XXIII (1989), Amex teamed with Saturday Night Live buddies Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz on a road trip to Robbie Stadium. Nine years later (SB XXXII) Amex was still playing the celebrity card. Its spokesman, Jerry Seinfeld and his animated idol, Superman, rescue Lois Lane, who's forgotten her wallet at the grocer. In a 1999 spot, while searching for his "real life" after leaving his old show, Seinfeld visits Mt Rushmore, holds scalding coffee, mutters, frets about wolves, can't feel his face, chats with a willowy blond, punches the St. Louis Arch, and drives to the Big Apple-continuing the nothingness of his show.

Meanwhile, Visa was winning the credit card war by celebrating places (like Rosalie's in Marblehead, Mass.) where "they don't take no for an answer and they don't take American Express. Visa's "it's everywhere you want to be" punch-line tied it to acceptability and shattered the common perception that Visa and MasterCard are interchangeable, said Jan Soderstrom, Visa's former executive vice president for marketing.

In a Super Bowl 1994 commercial, tourists in quaint medieval Todi, Italy, try to get locals to snap a photo of them with the boys' burro. The boys think the tourists want to trade so delightedly walk off with the camera-and leave them with the donkey. Luckily, the couple carries Visa Gold and can replace their camera. The next year, Visa refined its message to reflect the consumer interest in value over status. Instead of a French chateau (used in 1986) it showed its card proffered in a hamburger joint and the circus. It also touted its association with big events like the U.S. Open, the 1996Olympics and Paul McCartney's tour.

MasterCard played here for the first time in 1996 by focusing on the benefits of "smart money" but failing to emotionally connect. Its 1997 comeback - "There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard" and "priceless" - solved that. With this McCann-Erickson crafted campaign, MasterCard at last had fuel to fight Visa. "Priceless" compared the monetary costs of hot dogs and tickets at a baseball game with the priceless benefits: "Real conversation with your eleven-year-old son." Christmas gifts for a toddler were compared with the priceless experience of" watching her play with the cardboard box." Viewers liked the spots, remembered them, and used MasterCard often.

Other "Priceless" incarnations included the cartoon cast of Mr. Magoo (contact lenses $320); Yogi Bear, (treadmill, $800) and Olive Oyl, (Wonderbra, $25). The priceless component, "Being happy with who you are," expressed by Fred Flintstone. In 2000, at a snooty auction house, the letter "B" ("used by Shakespeare and Cookie Monster") and color red ("stops cars and causes bulls to charge") and gravity ("paperweight of the cosmos") are being bid on. "For everything else, there's MasterCard."

After presenting a priceless dinner of commercial icons like Charlie the Starkist Tuna and the Pillsbury Doughboy, in the 2005 game, MasterCard presented a takeoff of the TV series "MacGyver"in 2006. Its star, Richard Dean Anderson, used random items like an air freshener, tweezers, nasal spray and tube sock to help save the world.

In 1979 cash and checks paid for 75 percent of personal expenditures. Visa used the Super Bowl to wean people off paper and wear down their resistance to cards. Early on, a codger relaxing on his porch explains to his friend how his new Visa check card works. By Super Bowl XXXI (1997) Visa's check cards were widely used. To convert remaining doubters Visa tapped Bob Dole, a traditional, old-world guy, using a new-world pay system. Dole returns home to Russell, Kansas, where crowds host a welcome parade. But when he tries to pay for lunch in the town diner by check, the waitress demands all sorts of extra I.D. Similarly, Deion Sanders couldn't buy athletic gear with a check, or James Bond, caviar at a Secret Service snack bar without official documentation of their identity. Even Daffy Duck gets the brush-off at the Warner Bros. studio store without an ID. In 1998, a Buckingham Palace guard suffers indignity wearing plain clothes because the dry cleaner holding his uniform wouldn't accept a check.

Visa proved it could also tug at America's heartstrings, A little girl yearns for a pet elephant, Her doting dad, (and his Visa card) bring the fantasy to life. "Elephant stood apart from the usual in-your-face humor of the game and symbolized every wish that's bigger than it can be," said Jimmy Siegel, then copywriter at BBDO.

One year Visa suggested its card was the right tool for the right job by having a woman suck up her sloppy, lazy boyfriend who points out a spot she missed with her new vacuum cleaner. "It really does work," she muses. Another year it reminded us that we couldn't buy Olympics, Triple Crown or NASCAR tickets without Visa. And a "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" riff drove home that even personal connections can't do what its card can.

First Union: The Prince of Financial Darkness
For years, banks have positioned themselves as good neighbors with warm, fuzzy ads and lots of smiles and hank-shakes. First Union took a far different tact. After it had morphed from a regional financier into a veritable colossus owning CoreStates Financial and The Money Store, it wanted the world to notice its reformation. "Financial World" in Super Bowl XXXIII (1999) was its vehicle. It presented a hellish, bizarre landscape of financial manholes, negotiable only with First Union's help. Faceless people in black trench coats and bowler hats trudge down rain-soaked streets lit by garish neon, past grotesque fire-breathers, fortune-tellers and painted-faced freaks. Everything is made of money or monetary symbols. Little red cars (representing debt) dart around long black ones (representing solvency). Things smash, topple over, shatter. In another spot, sharks swim with crocodiles in a murky "sea of money," in a partly-submerged, decrepit bank vault.

"This is a world of risk and uncertainty, where the roads can take you to success or prosperity-or sometimes, to no place at all. This is the financial world." The ominous voice belongs to Hal Riney, architect of the campaign. "For decades, banks and investment firms of mountainous size have ruled the land," the narrator's foreboding gives way to hope. "Yet high above the horizon, another mountain has risen-a mountain called First Union, with 16 million customers, the nation's eighth-largest brokerage and sixth-largest bank." A gleaming glass and steel mountain, emblazoned with the First Union name emerges, along with an invitation to "come to a mountain called First Union. Or, if you prefer, the mountain will come to you."

"We were frustrated that we were one of the 15 largest financial institutions, and no one knew our name," said Jim Garrity, then senior vice president of brand management. After the commercials ran, everyone did. But many didn't like what they knew. They felt that the fast-paced campaign was eye-catching but chaotic, and at its $100 million cost, a mountainous waste of money and viewers' time. The images were dark when America's mood and the economy were not, and the looming corporate monolith represented what people fear and loath in financial institutions. They saw First Union as the bank from hell. In 2001, First Union bought Wachovia and kept Wachovia's name, nullifying the good, the bad of much of its Super Bowl investment.

New York Life and Hartford New York Life
Most people don't need a dinner-time interruption from an insurance agent to want to banish them. Hoping to change that, in Super Bowl XXI (1987) and XXIV New York Life portrayed its sales reps as next-door neighbors and friends. Its research found that its agents tend to make a career of life insurance, and many grew up in the town where they sell policies. This insight-that these are not "here today and gone tomorrow" types- led to its "the company you keep" theme.

In Super Bowl 1999, Hartford Financial Services Group paid $1.5 million for an ad in the game and another just before it to demonstrate how the insurer can handle "whatever life brings on." A kangaroo escapes from a zoo to wreak havoc; the devastation freezes and a voice-over describes how Hartford's auto or small-business insurance can help right things. Although Hartford felt energized by its first Super Bowl pass, it passed on the game the following year because it was not cost-efficient.

Progressive: Hanging up on E.T.
Perhaps because Progressive Auto Insurance Corp. saw what E.T. had done for Hershey Foods, it figured the $20 million it spent licensing the shriveled alien as its "safety ambassador" plus the millions more for ad-time on the Super Bowl would pay off. Risk is the lifeblood of the insurance industry, but E.T. seemed like a sure thing, a well known and beloved metaphor for healing. And advertising on the Super Bowl, while costly seemed a surefire way to get attention. Progressive wanted to change what little image it had as a company focused on high-risk drivers to one that covers all motorists.

So it sponsored the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXIII and ran a multi-pronged campaign. E.T. returns to his spaceship to tell his colleagues about life on Earth where humans rush around in cars and have accidents. People liked it but it didn't drive them to Progressive. Soon after Chairman Peter B. Lewis apologized to shareholders in his annual letter, for "an act of hubris and egomania in which I was very much involved" and elsewhere for a "total bomb, a disaster," but one from which he" learned a lot. When you spend $20 million for nothing, you learn a lot." Lewis also fired the Arnell agency which crafted the campaign and, he claimed, pressured him to splash it on the big game .Arnell counter-sued Progressive for unpaid invoices and damages. After its Super Bowl encounter Progressive focused on direct-response ads which promised to steer callers to competing insurers if they can get lower rates.

John Hancock: Real Life, Real Answers
The idea for John Hancock struck them at a neighborhood bar. During one of their many problem solving walks around Boston's Back Bay, Bill Heater, a copywriter at the Hill Holiday Connors Cosmopulos agency and his partner, art director Don Easdon, stopped for a beer, overheard real conversations and hit upon the "Real Life, Real Answers" campaign. It was the early 1980s. The venerable John Hancock Financial Services Co. was under siege from banks and brokers nibbling at its asset base. Hancock now offered all manner of financial services-and wanted all manner of prospects to know. It needed to come up with something as powerful as its once relevant "Put your John Hancock on a John Hancock," song and as solid as Prudential's rock, Allstate's cupped hands, MetLife's Snoopy character and Travelers' umbrella.

A documentary film on the Loud family, a 1973 precursor to the 21st century reveal-all Osbournes, had had a big impact on TV a decade earlier. Easdon and Heater decided to show everyday folks, like those at the bar, in documentary-style dramas built around emotionally charged, life-changing events, like a baby's birth. Unlike competitors that promoted what they could do for you or relied on feel-good symbols, John Hancock's emotional dramas would grip the head and heart by combining reality with sentimentality.

They videotaped a spot of Heater rocking his infant daughter to sleep. Scrawl on a screen presents his dossier. ("Bill Heater, 30, married, two children, income $35,000.") as dad coos "I love you little Jenny Katherine...I've got something very, very important to tell you. Daddy got a raise. (Pause) Are you listening?"

Subsequently his estimated expenses (income tax, rent, food, etc) flash ledger style on the screen. "That means, uh, that I can buy you a sandbox, playhouse. It means I can buy you a sliding board, a little bicycle, a diamond ring." That spot, done on spec, won the agency the account and became the first commercial in the campaign.

Subsequent spots featured characters so real you'd swear they weren't actors bearing names of actual agency employees and financial dossiers that were composites of Hancock policyholders. Kevin Driscoll mused nocturnally to his somnolent wife about his dreams to work for himself. The screen text shows some suggestions to accumulate capital for his new business while protecting his investments. One vignette showed a 26 year old bachelor who earns $30,000 a year and spends $27,000being upbraided for fiscal irresponsibility by his brother. In another, Margaret and Tom Fitzgerald let their anxieties surface at the closing ceremony of buying their first home. In Super Bowl XX a 37 year old athlete delivered an emotional farewell. "Yesterday I was a football player. Today I'm retired. How do I want to be remembered?" His voice cracked. "As a good father, as a good husband. And that's it. That's life. And that's what life is."

The actors mumbled and shrugged, looked away from the camera, spoke over each other. Their voices were immersed in background noise to suggest we really were eavesdropping on actual families working out financial plans. Heater described the style as "newsy and nosy." What they were, in fact, were hard sell ads served up in the softest, most palatable way.

Initially field agents found them too low-key. There was no pitch. The name John Hancock was never spoken and didn't appear in the script until nearly the end. President David D'Alessandro overruled them. After the public embraced it, agents rallied behind it. Later it was adapted to print ads. "Real Life, Real Answers." changed people's perceptions about Hancock, buoyed sales 17 percent in 1986and allayed people's fears of their own financial ignorance, making them more receptive to a pitch. It ran for ten years, although on the Super Bowl only through 1988. The game, D'Alessandro decided, was over-priced.

E*Trade Gets Loopy
In the heady days of the late 1990s, money was coming from everywhere (tax breaks, IRAs, 401ks)and E*Trade was dropping it lavishly. The cyber broker giddily suggested that trading online was so hip, fun and simple that your biggest worry was having too much money. An irreverent spot from the2000 Super Bowl spoofing "ER," showed an emergency room doctor examining a patient's rump. He doesn't need insurance because "this man has money coming out of the wazoo! "The rectal humor got viewers to heed E-Trade's challenging concept: that you don't need a broker. It was reinforced by another Super Bowl XXXIV spot in which two guys in a garage clapped as a monkey danced to "La Cucaracha." A voice explains the connection: "We just wasted two million bucks. What are you doing with your money?" It was the most liked and remembered Internet spot of the game. And it netted E-trade 603,000 new customers in that first year. But soon the money that was coming out of E-Trade's wazoo, had dried up and the high-tech stocks that it had grown fat recommending, were tanking.

E*Trade kept its chimp and tongue-in-cheek attitude but changed its message from treating investing as a sport, to warning investors to do it wisely. The chimp wept as he rode a horse through a dot-com graveyard, past, and He comes upon a sports car with "DOT COMER" license plates, and a scruffy sock puppet in the dust.

In Super Bowl 2002, the chimp returned in an exuberant-Vegas-style musical. In a top hat and sparkling sequin coat, he tap-danced. As the camera cut to a newspaper headline: "Monkey Flops. Silliest Ad in Game History," E*Trade CEO Costas.  Cotsakos congratulates himself for firing the primate and dispatching him in a rocket. Unfortunately, Cotsakos came across as meaner than Cruella Deville, and E*Trade's message - that it had broadened its services and changed its name to E*Trade Financial to bury any dot-com association-was lost.

Super Plays/Take-Away
Conventional wisdom on Madison Avenue is that when it comes to money, it's not funny. Financial advertisers on the Super Bowl showed that axiom was all wet. From American Express's adventures with Jerry Seinfeld, to Bob Dole who just can't win without a Visa Check Card, even money can be made funny on the big game.

Most financial advertisers on the Super Bowl ad bench tried to invest their services with humanity. The ones who bombed - E.T. for Progressive and the surrealistic nightmare for First Union-required the viewer think too hard.


"The Super Bowl of Advertising: Are The Advertisers Still Winning The Game?" Bernice Kanner. New York: ANA, 2006.