AmEx: When Marketing Strategy Goes Bad

This is a cautionary tale for all marketers.

You’ve probably seen it — the American Express commercial for their Prepaid Card where the hip woman bites into a translucent blue record. It seems to come on at least three times a day, especially during sporting events. They are also running it on Hulu during food shows. I must have watched it 50 times and each time I said to myself: “What the heck is that about?”

Then I figured “Well, I’m an old guy, it’s probably not targeted to me, so it’s not surprising I don’t get it. I’m sure my kids can fill me in.” But, no, they didn’t get it either. Perhaps because they were born after people played vinyl records and they’re not fond of hipsters.

So I decided to do a little research. I went out to YouTube to see what I could learn. Lesson #1: American Express really missed the mark with this commercial. Virtually none of the comments I saw were favorable … and there are a LOT of comments.

The star of the commercial is Carrie Brownstein, a musician and actress who works with Fred Armisen in the TV show Portlandia. She definitely has a cult following; this is presumably the audience that American Express was trying influence with the ad.

What had confused me about the ad from the beginning was why Brownstein took a bite out of the record. In my naivety, I thought she was trying to eat the record, which made no sense — last time I checked, you can’t digest vinyl. What became clear through the comments on YouTube is that she was actually trying to take a mint condition classic album and, by damaging it, be able to purchase it for a discount price.

Comments ranged from “she should be arrested” to “how could she damage such a great album”. For every hipster who found this commercial amusing, there must be 10 people who were amazingly offended. (I was also quite surprised that the commercial has been viewed on YouTube almost 7 MILLION times. Exactly who goes on YouTube to watch commercials?)

It is hard to believe that this is the reaction American Express had hoped to generate from this ad. What exactly was the strategy that went into this effort? Is someone at American Express (or their ad agency) a Portlandia fan? It is easy to understand their desire to target younger consumers who may like the convenience of a pre-paid card and can’t qualify for a credit/charge card. But this ad seems to have gone very far off the mark, resulting in more negative reactions than positive.

This must be what they call a “learning experience”.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply