The MasterCard "Priceless" advertising campaign, developed in 1997 as a response to the company's failure due to lack of public appeal, was revolutionary for its time. At the time, American Express and Visa, its major competitors, had campaigns that were highly focused on the materialism and consumerism of the current American culture. Thus, MasterCard undertook "What Matters" research, consumer research in which the company asked people, in an open-ended manner, what was important to them, revealing a national tendency to rank certain intangible successes, such as having a happy marriage, over receiving a higher salary. The growing importance placed upon the intangible accomplishments and special, invisible moments in life conflicted with advertisement campaigns of American Express, which, to this day, is a status symbol of opulence, wealth, and exclusivity, and Visa, which also uses exclusivity as an appeal (for example, Visa is the only card accepted at the winter Olympics in Vancouver). This provided MasterCard with the initial kairos to launch the campaign, which has now endured for over ten years, and has expanded to 105 countries, advertising in forty-eight languages.
With this revolutionary knowledge, the question thus became who could be the audience, the recipients willing to switch their affiliations to MasterCard, or create an affiliation to begin with. Initially, the target audience were people dubbed "revolvers" by the credit card companies, those who tended to have a balance remaining unpaid on their credit cards. These revolvers were not swayed by the exclusivity and appeal that American Express and Visa had over the rich simply by virtue of the fact that they were not rich, and could not engage in the type of spending glorified by the other credit card company's ads. However, this target audience reveals some immorality of the part of MasterCard. Although the idea of their initial campaign sounds wonderful, shifting the focus from spending money to achieving pricelessness, MasterCard is still a credit card company that wants to make money, which is earned through interest on payments, especially on payments that are persistently not paid, or not paid in full. MasterCard had an idea, a captive audience, and the opportunity to put itself back on the map, despite any issues of immorality.
Their strategy was logically brilliant: simple, understandable, memorable, yet resonant, with almost universal appeal. In what MasterCard executives have described as a hybrid of a hybrid and a grocery shopping list, the original template of the priceless ads followed the following format: "Object: $___. Another object: $___. A third object: $___. The intangible, valuable experience: priceless. There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard." Why were these advertisements so resonant with audiences? What audiences will recall most are the pathetic appeals of the advertisements. For example, there is a magazine ad that depicts a dog sitting in an apartment covers, floor and walls, with newspaper (":priceless"), with the price of the newspaper subscriptions combined (":$124/month"). The cuteness of the basset hound puppy appeals to people's appreciation of innocence. Additionally, the experience resonates with a large audience of people who have experienced having and housebreaking a puppy, not intrinsically a good experience, but fondly and nostalgically remembered. However, MasterCard's use of logical appeals through logos is also undeniable. The advertisements resemble a syllogism, stating that buying the components A, B, and C, will allow you to achieve priceless moment D, almost as a recipe states that mixing together certain ingredients and components will provide a delicious meal. Take another example, this one an advertisement published in several languages, which says, in English: "stick-to-itiveness . . . and several dozen legal pads: $37 (having what it takes to run a business: priceless." This advertisement appeals to current and aspiring small business owners in a logical manner. There are certain resources that must be bought to facilitate the operation of a small business. However, there is so much more that goes into it. By highlighting the strength of personality required to run a small business, MarsterCard effectually trivializes the importance of the physical resources prerequisite to the functioning of the business.
This advertising strategy worked particularly well with the initial audience of revolvers. The company dubbed them essentially good people, to whom the priceless moment appeals, but who were not attracted to the appeal of the significantly wealthy. That explains the campaigns initial success, but what has allowed it to flourish for over a decade, through national hardship and economic downturn? The first is the broad audience that the advertisements appeal to. While not every commercial or magazine advertisement appeals to everyone, someone is attracted by one of the MasterCard advertisements. For example, there was a recent series of television commercials in which sports legend Peyton Manning is depicted cheering on ordinary people doing their daily activities. The irony and humor in the advertisement of a celebrity cheering on those people who are usually his fans appeals to the sector of Americans that watch sports and realize his credibility. Another television commercial, entitled "We Want the Funk," depicts three young schoolboys dancing to "We Want the Funk": "backpack: $20. people who understand you: priceless," appealing to mothers, who are reminded of the cuteness of their own children, and of older men with nostalgic memories of the simplicity of boyhood friendships. In the international advertisements, such as the one appealing to small-business owners, or a recently released Chinese advertisement promoting travel, says, translated, "Beer, barbeque, sausage; 95 Euro. Great German "Man-Han Banquet" priceless. You daily guide to life's adventures." Thus, MasterCard now appeals to an international audience who enjoys travel and experiencing different culture, and also small business owners in several countries. Broadening the audience to a universal level has allowed for the continuing success of the campaign.
Another significant factor in the continued success of the campaign, despite economic downturn, has been its constant development from the basic template to reflect slight consumer changes. Paying for objects with a credit card is easy, almost too easy. It has no physical association with money until the bill comes at the end of the month. Until then, it is easy to swipe thoughtlessly for objects needed for "pricelessness" in life, always focused on the attainment of the intangible, and not on the money it costs to get there. So, when MasterCard says 'there are some thing money can't buy,' they don't really mean it. It is a clichéed expression to which they probably mean the opposite. No, personal strength, happiness, solidarity, and the like cannot be purchased, but there are physical prerequisites. Therefore, the overall strategy of their campaign has a self-reinforcing effect-MasterCard began by investigating what consumers thought was important. They then endorse it, perpetuating the importance placed on pricelessness and simultaneously redefining it. For example, in 2006, immediately before the recession struck the economy, MasterCard had a competition where consumers would 'fill in the blanks' of their commercial. The accessibility of money to most people before the recession allowed them to define what they were buying, and remaining so excessively accountable to their audience increased MasterCard's credibility. When the economy experienced the downturn over recent years, many MasterCard ads have began to have $0 claims, advertising things costing no money, or advertising sweepstakes that allow you to win objects that do not need to be purchased. In addition, the nostalgic and comical nature of the advertisements remove people from the restricting mentality of living during the recession, making frugality less important, and allowing MasterCard continued success.
Thus, in a slightly manipulative, deceptively logical, and constantly expanding manner, MasterCard has put itself back on the map as a driving competitor in the credit card market. Tapping into a revolutionary national concept, MasterCard became the "first mover" in a campaign advertising a product designed to facilitate spending money by, ironically, endorsing the procurement of things that (supposedly) do not cost anything. But, in the end, don't they?
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